Bill proposes proof of shots for collegians Vaccination measure would affect all Md. 2- , 4-year schools

'Real public health issue'

Panel, in 9-2 vote, advances legislation to Senate floor

January 22, 1996|By David Folkenflik | David Folkenflik,SUN STAFF

Under legislation that passed its first test last week, students entering Maryland colleges would not be allowed to enroll in classes until they have shown proof of receiving proper vaccinations.

Most four-year campuses require some immunization already, although their policies vary widely. But the proposal of state Sen. Paula C. Hollinger, a Baltimore County Democrat, would apply uniform requirements to all students at two-year and four-year colleges in the state -- affecting tens of thousands of students starting next fall.

By a vote of 9-2, the bill was reported out of the Maryland Senate Committee on Economic and Environmental Affairs and onto the Senate floor last week. It must secure the approval of both chambers of the General Assembly to become law.

"This is a real public health issue," said Ms. Hollinger, a registered nurse who worked for five years in the Baltimore County school system.

In recent years, public health experts have discovered that the immunizations given to infants for mumps, measles and rubella were not necessarily strong enough to last, which sparked the use of a stronger inoculation for toddlers. That discovery also led to requirements that schoolchildren receive second shots in grade school. But not everyone has -- and when these students get to college, they find themselves in close quarters with others, providing fertile ground for spreading disease.

"It makes a lot of sense to me," said Jennifer Berkman, director of student health services at Salisbury State University. "Communicable diseases are very cyclical. If you let your guard down on measles, you're probably going to see it again in five years."

It's an issue that more frequently pops up in the public schools than on college campuses.

Several thousand students in Baltimore city schools were barred from attending classes this fall, for example, when they could not show they had completed the necessary immunizations. Some students had never received the shots, and many lacked the second round. But the bill would be tougher on college students; schoolchildren often have a few days to prove their status.

By 1998, state health officials said, all college-aged students will have received strong enough coverage to ward off communicable diseases before they arrive on campus.

Ms. Hollinger's bill has gained the support of state health officials and some campus health officers. Amendments adopted the Senate last week would allow the state Department of Health and Mental Hygiene to work with the Maryland Medical and Chirurgical Society to determine for which diseases immunizations would be required. Maryland is one of 21 states to have no vaccination requirements for college students.

While the legislation has gained the official backing of the University of Maryland System, some higher education officials appear wary of additional regulation.

Patricia S. Florestano, the Maryland higher education secretary, has not taken a stance on the issue, although she generally has favored a push toward reducing, rather than adding, regulations on the state's campuses.

"We favor the intent of it. Our colleges all have requirements for immunization," said Beth Garraway, executive director of the Maryland Independent Colleges and Universities Association, an umbrella group of private campuses. "In this case, regulations are only needed when people don't voluntarily comply. I'm concerned about increased bureaucratization. On both the public campuses and the private campuses, we are over-regulated."

Washington College requires proof of immunization from students before entering, for example, while the Johns Hopkins University does so for its full-time students. The Hollinger bill would cover all students, whatever their status, although it would make some exemptions for people who decline medical treatment on religious grounds.

But some colleges do not enforce their requirements, said Edward M. Hirshorn, director of field operations for the state center for immunization. This bill would not let students register without proof they had received the shots.

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