1,000 opt for shots at Loyola Students, many urged by parents, line up for meningitis vaccine

March 27, 1997|By David Folkenflik | David Folkenflik,SUN STAFF Sun staff writer Ivan Penn contributed to this article.

Medical workers from the health departments of Baltimore City and Anne Arundel County did a brisk business at Loyola College yesterday, inoculating approximately 1,000 undergraduates against the strain of meningitis-causing bacteria that killed a freshman there last weekend.

Many undergraduates have left campus for Easter break, but campus officials intend to offer free shots to students again today and will resume Tuesday, when students return.

While voluntary, the vaccines were recommended by city, state and federal health officials because the death Saturday of Gerry F. Case Jr. from a fast-moving meningococcal blood infection followed another student's ailment from the same strain of bacteria a month ago.

At noon yesterday, students -- spurred in many cases by frantic calls from parents -- lined up for the inoculations at a gym at the North Baltimore campus.

"What is one step worse than being a Loyola College student with this going on?" asked Dr. Oscar Taube, a Sinai Hospital specialist in adolescent medicine who is the college's medical consultant. "Easy answer: to be a parent 300 miles away."

"Frankly, I don't think there's a need for it, but my parents really wanted me to do it," said Sergio Vitale, a 20-year-old political science major from Glen Arm. "While it's being offered, you might as well get it."

Students filled out consent forms and pored over a list of possible side effects before getting the quick jab from a vaccine-filled syringe, then sat afterward for about 15 minutes to ensure they did not respond poorly to the shot. Most were in and out in about 25 minutes, and by midafternoon the line had slowed to a trickle.

The disease is contagious but difficult to contract, and primarily affects children and young adults. Many people -- perhaps as much as 20 percent of the population -- are carrying bacteria that cause meningitis at any given time. But not everyone is susceptible to it. The bacteria is typically spread through close contact -- such as kissing or sharing cups or silverware.

While meningitis caused by a virus is not generally considered a serious condition, bacterial meningitis can cause brain damage or death. Symptoms of the disease include headache, vomiting, severely stiff neck and small, bluish spots on the palm of the hand.

"If it's a matter of sitting down and getting a shot that could prevent the tragedy that happened to Gerry, why not?" asked Andrea McHugh, 21, a senior from Fairfax, Va., who is majoring in English and writing. "I think I can deal with a sore arm."

The private Jesuit campus, with about 3,400 undergraduates, is relatively small and tightly knit, so that most students either knew Case or were friends of his friends, several students said. Many professors have started classes this week with prayers for Case, and fellow freshmen held a candlelight vigil for him Tuesday night on campus, a few hours after his funeral in Annapolis.

Concern has been expressed about other campuses as well. Early in the week, several state legislators pressed city officials, including Baltimore Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke, asking why Morgan State University students had not been offered the same vaccines, in light of the death of Morgan student Sheronda Conaway from meningitis last month.

Yesterday, at a meeting with state legislators in Annapolis requested by state Democratic Sens. Larry Young of Baltimore and Gloria Lawlah, whose district includes Conaway's hometown, state health officials and a expert from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta explained how they responded to the disease at the two campuses.

"We showed [the legislators] science," said Dr. Georges Benjamin, the deputy state secretary for public health. "We talked them through the policy decisions that health officials made and how we made them."

City, state and federal health officials said widespread inoculations would not have been appropriate for the historically black campus. First, they said, there were not enough incidents of the disease to warrant the move. More important, they said, the strain of the disease that killed Conaway in February could not be prevented by available vaccines.

The deaths of Conaway and Case have caused many college students to learn more about meningitis than they ever wanted to know.

"Outside the city, if you say you're from Loyola, [people] really don't understand how the disease is spread and how hard it is to get," Vitale said.

The disease is not unknown on college campuses. Every year, many American colleges and universities have periodic reports of it. Two years ago, there were a few cases of meningitis at Loyola, but no one died.

Initially, Loyola officials offered antibiotics to people who had close contact with Case to kill the meningitis-causing bacteria. On Monday, when a medical report confirmed that the strain of the disease that killed him was the same that afflicted another student, officials decided to offer free vaccines to everyone on campus under 30 years old.

A thousand doses were flown in late Tuesday night to Baltimore-Washington International Airport and more than 2,000 more doses were sent by overnight mail. The campus health clinic arranged the student vaccinations and handled waves of calls from the parents of students.

"They ask a lot of questions. 'Is my son or my daughter at risk?' We tell them, 'Here's the story'," said Jeanne Lombardi, clinic director. "We've had family practitioners call, grandmothers, aunts, uncles. It's been overwhelming."

Pub Date: 3/27/97

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