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Last call for MenB shots
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Last call for MenB shots

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Oregon State University administrators have a message for students returning to school after winter break: It’s time to get serious.

School officials have been trying for months to communicate the urgency of getting immunized against meningococcus B, a dangerous illness that has infected half a dozen students on the Corvallis campus since November 2016.

While thousands of students have answered the call to get their shots, thousands of others appear to have turned a deaf ear — which is ironic, considering that one of the potential consequences of MenB is permanent hearing loss.

Here are some others: Brain damage. Vision loss. Amputation of limbs. Death.

Now you can add one more consequence to that list: Students 25 or younger who haven’t completed a full course of vaccinations for the disease by Feb. 15 will not be allowed to enroll for spring term or receive their final winter term grades.

That may be the one that finally gets the attention of procrastinators. At 10:30 Tuesday morning, about 200 students were standing in line to get their shots at the first of five mass vaccination clinics the university is putting on this week with the help of Fred Meyer pharmacists and a small army of OSU employees and volunteers.

“I wasn’t planning on doing it, but you can’t register for spring classes until you do it,” said Brierre Marshall, a 20-year-old business administration major from Corvallis who got a MenB shot on Tuesday.

“I guess I just never thought it would happen to me.”

That’s one of the challenges school officials have been battling as they try to convey a sense of urgency to students about the meningococcal disease outbreak.

OSU Vice President Steve Clark said the university has sent out close to 40 emails to students, parents and staff highlighting the seriousness of the problem and urging students to get immunized. After the sixth case was diagnosed in mid-December, OSU made vaccination for meningococcus B mandatory for all students 25 or younger (the most susceptible age group) and imposed the Feb. 15 deadline for compliance.

“What we’re dealing with here is a public health matter,” Clark said. “We’re not taking anything for granted.”

Dr. Jeff Mull, medical director of OSU Student Health Services, acknowledged that meningococcal disease is relatively rare. But with six cases diagnosed at OSU so far, the chance of exposure on campus is fairly high — and vaccination is the most effective way to ward off the illness.

According to the National Meningitis Association, an average of 600 to 1,000 cases of meningococcal disease are reported each year in the United States. Some 10 to 15 percent of those cases are fatal, and up to 20 percent of survivors will be left with some sort of permanent disability.

“What we try to tell people is it’s a very serious disease,” Mull said.

Up to this point, OSU’s vaccination numbers have been disappointing.

The aim is to make sure that all students 25 or under are immunized, which translates to about 22,000 of the more than 24,000 taking classes at the Corvallis campus. So far, however, only about 7,000 are believed to have met the requirement, leaving 15,000 vulnerable students unprotected.

OSU officials are hoping this week’s clinics will bring them much closer to hitting their target.

“Between now and Sunday is our big push,” said Brian Stroup, an associate director of University Housing & Dining Services and head of OSU’s incident management team for the outbreak. The nine-member group has set up a war room in the student union and has been meeting on a daily basis since Jan. 2.

One reason for the urgency is that the only approved vaccines for MenB require either two or three doses, which must be administered at least one month apart. Students who have already begun a three-dose regimen of Trumenba may still be able to get their final dose in time to meet the Feb. 15 deadline. Those who have received no vaccine will need to get their first shot of Bexsero this week to leave time for a second and final dose by mid-February.

For students without insurance, cost can be an issue: A full course of Bexsero runs $314, while the bill for Trumenba is $420. Students who can’t afford the vaccine may be able to sign up for the Oregon Health Plan or work out a payment plan with OSU.

Students who object to being vaccinated for medical or religious reasons can get an exemption, but they must present a note from a medical professional saying they've been counseled about the risks of not being immunized.

The job of Stroup’s team is to make sure that everyone who needs shots is getting them. The group gets daily updates with the names of students who have not met the vaccination requirements — and those students get a daily email reminding them that they could be barred from classes or have their grades withheld until they comply.

“No more instances is our No. 1 goal,” Stroup said. “That’s why we have requirements in place to make sure the sixth case is the last one, if possible.”

Reporter Bennett Hall can be reached at 541-758-9529 or bennett.hall@lee.net. Follow him on Twitter at @bennetthallgt.

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