Many state departments of health and the American Academy of Pediatrics recommend meningococcal vaccinations for all adolescents, yet there are gaps in U.S. vaccination laws. Many states still do not have laws requiring meningitis vaccinations that could prevent an outbreak. Such an outbreak, like the one in Colorado in 2010, can have a huge impact on a community. It spreads among those who live or work in close proximity to others, such as college students in a dorm or school children. The disease strikes quickly and can kill within 12 hours of infection.
There are several approaches that individual states take to meningitis laws to prevent outbreaks, including requiring dissemination of information and/or requiring vaccinations.
The first and most basic level of intervention is to require the state department of health to provide information to parents and college students about the risks of meningitis and how to obtain a vaccination. Most states do require that meningitis vaccine information is distributed to those at risk.
Beyond simply making information available, a state could also require vaccinations for elementary, high school or college students. Only about half of states have laws regarding vaccinations for students. All of the states that mandate vaccinations allow for medical or religious exemptions, and some also allow philosophical exemptions. Alternatively, many states allow the student or parent to sign a waiver acknowledging they’re aware of the risks in lieu of actually getting the vaccination. The issue of medical exemptions, religious exemptions and philosophical or personal belief exemptions is discussed in depth in this blog post. These waivers, and to some extent the exemptions as well, can severely decrease vaccine uptake and weaken community immunity.
There are ongoing efforts to expand legislation in many states to include mandatory meningococcal vaccines. An example is Wyoming, where legislation has been introduced multiple times that would make vaccines mandatory for college students studying in the state. The legislation came about as a result of the Colorado outbreak mentioned above, and was requested by friends of a victim from Colorado, who visited in nearby Casper, WY. Unfortunately, the legislation failed to pass this year’s legislature but these efforts should be recognized and commended. Persistent action by stakeholders like the community in Casper can lead to important incremental changes in public health law.
This information was developed by Chris Walker, staff attorney for the Network for Public Health Law – National Coordinating Center at the Public Health Law Center at William Mitchell College of Law.
The Network for Public Health Law provides information and technical assistance on issues related to public health. The legal information and assistance provided in this document does not constitute legal advice or legal representation. For legal advice, readers should consult a lawyer in their state.