Roosevelt High School senior Sierra Sterling, 17, testifies in Casper via video hook-up to the state Senate Labor, Health, and Social Services Committee on Wednesday morning. The committee voted unanimously to pass a bill written by Roosevelt students that would require Wyoming children to be vaccinated for meningitis. (Tim Kupsick/Star-Tribune)
A bill that would require Wyoming children to receive meningitis vaccinations cleared a legislative committee Wednesday.
The vaccinations would protect against bacterial meningitis, an inflammation of the membranes that cover the brain and spinal cord. The disease can be fatal and is more common among young adults.
State health officials already have the authority to make meningitis vaccinations mandatory. But they don't have the money to fund such a requirement. The legislation would provide for $335,000 annually to pay for the vaccinations, which cost about $80 a dose.
Students at Roosevelt High School in Casper wrote the legislation. They watched via live video hookup as the Senate Labor, Health and Social Services Committee unanimously voted in favor of the bill.
Senior Sierra Sterling told lawmakers the students decided to get involved after hearing the story of a Colorado college student who died shortly after contracting the disease.
Funding the program would protect future generations of students, Sterling said.
"Who could put a price on a loved one?" she asked the committee.
Wyoming now offers the bacterial meningitis vaccine to children for a minimal administration fee. Last year, 3,400 children received the vaccine, State Health Officer Dr. Brent Sherard told the committee.
Making the vaccine mandatory would boost immunization rates, Sherard said. Among the state's adolescents, vaccination rates for meningitis are considerably lower than rates for the DTaP vaccine that protects against diphtheria, tetanus and whooping cough, according to figures from the National Immunization Survey. The DTaP vaccine is mandatory.
Under the bill approved by the committee, children would have to reach a certain age before they are required to receive the meningitis vaccination. Phasing in the vaccine over several years will be less expensive than immunizing all children at once.
Vaccinating all children between 11 and 18 during a single year would cost the state $2.3 million, according to a state Health Department estimate.
The legislation, which now heads to the Senate Appropriations Committee, does not specify at what age children will be required to be vaccinated. The Health Department would make that decision if the bill becomes law.
Bacterial meningitis can kill within hours of a person feeling ill. Its symptoms -- fever, headache and a stiff neck -- initially mimic less serious illnesses, said Sen. Bill Landen, R-Casper, who sponsored the legislation.
"Frankly, it is one of the most feared infectious diseases we have," he said.
Meningitis is contagious and people in community settings, like college dormitories, are at increased risk of being infected. That fact hit home with the students who wrote the bill, Sterling said following the vote.
"It is scary you could get this disease and not even 24 hours later you could be dead," she said.
I am completely supportive of this bill, and I do hope it passes. Meningococcal meningitis is very scary stuff. I didn't have this type (I had HIB meningitis), but I have seen the effects it's had on people of all ages. It is a very debilitating disease, and even deadly. Brain damage, hearing loss, loss of limbs, heavy scarring, life-long medical problems, etc. Get vaccinated!