Preventing college outbreaks: Has your college student had their shots?

Measles, mumps, and meningitis top list of concerns

ANN ARBOR, Mich. - College students are getting ready to head back to campus, but are they bringing back more than summer memories?

This past year has seen outbreaks of measles, mumps and meningitis at college campuses across the country. 

"Disease spreads quickly, especially the scary ones, the meningitis, measles, mumps, these are diseases that can spread well in college populations," said Dr. Eden Wells, director of the preventative medicine residency at the University of Michigan School of Public Health in Ann Arbor.

Wells said many of these diseases are making a comeback and college students can face extra risks.

"It's a different life where they may be more at risk for infection.  They're stressed out, they may be staying up late," said Wells. 

They're also often living in dorms or crowded rental housing.

"One kid gets sick, the whole dorm is sick and then the whole freshman class is sick.  It's seriously awful," said Leah Spaulding, a junior at the University of Michigan.

Spaulding said students expect to catch coughs and colds, but not something like the mumps.

"I've only ever heard about it in that nursery rhyme about the mumps.  So I don't know if I've been vaccinated for it or not."

We heard that response a lot from students.  Experts say that's a problem.

"Certainly caught a very large community in Ohio by surprise," said Wells.  "Now we're all very worried this could spread to other college campuses."

In January, a mumps outbreak started on the Ohio State University campus and quickly spread to staff and people in the community.

"You had pregnant people, staff, dorm-mates, then community members, friends, family, children," said Wells.

At least 469 cases of mumps have been reported in connection to that outbreak and that number continues to climb.  Complications from mumps can include hearing loss, infertility in men, meningitis, and in rare cases, death.

Measles is another threat -- potentially causing pneumonia, encephalitis and miscarriages.

"In 2000, we were supposed to have eliminated measles from our country.  If anything, it's getting worse," said Wells. 

In 2014, health officials are reporting the most measles cases the United States has seen in 20 years.

Experts say global travel and falling vaccination rates in children are driving the increase in many of these diseases.  Your best defense?

"We can actually give a vaccine that covers both measles, mumps and rubella.  It's called the MMR," said Wells.

College students should have received two doses of the MMR vaccine in childhood.  Some missed that second dose.

A meningococcal vaccine, or the booster, are also strongly recommended for college students.

Bacterial meningitis can lead to limb amputations, kidney damage and sometimes death.

While the current vaccine will not protect against the meningitis B strain that hit Princeton and UC Santa Barbara earlier this year, it will help prevent the strains most often seen at colleges.

"No vaccine is truly 100 percent effective.  We know that.  But we do know if we can a large number of people protected with vaccine, we're going to be less likely to have outbreaks," said Wells.

That's because of something called "herd immunity."  In simple terms, if enough people in a community are vaccinated, they can also protect the few that are not, by making it harder for a disease to spread.  But if too many people aren't vaccinated, there's no herd immunity and diseases can spread rapidly.  That means people who may have missed a shot, or didn't have a full response to a vaccine, are also at higher risk.

"I don't really want to sick, especially like when I'm studying," said Anna Pan, a U of M junior.  "When I have school, it's hard to miss class."

We found most students we talked to had no objection to vaccines, they just didn't know if they were missing any.

So who determines if students get their shots?

"My mom," laughed Pan.

"My mom always took me to the doctor and had me vaccinated whenever I needed them," echoed Spaulding.

Perhaps it's time for college students to take one last trip to the pediatrician before they leave the nest for good. 

"College students should look forward to being at college and if they know they come in protected, and take care of themselves, and be healthy, I think they'll have a great time," said Wells.

To find out what vaccines you might be missing, take the CDC's interactive quiz and check with your doctor.

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