Mid-August marks the time when many of our high school graduates pack up and head off to college for the first time. This time of year is always accompanied by packing lists and to-do lists. One item our students should be sure not to forget: their meningitis vaccination.

People of any age can get meningitis, but those most at risk include very young children, adolescents and, especially, those living in close quarters like college dormitories. The federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommend the meningococcal vaccine for everyone aged 11 to 18 years old. Those who are headed off to college should have a booster shot if their original dose was given at least five years earlier.

Current state law requires students in on-campus housing at public universities to tell administrators whether they have been vaccinated for meningitis. There is currently no legal mandate in Ohio that college students be vaccinated, though some other states have taken that step. In recent years, there have been several cases of meningitis at Ohio colleges, some fatal. Nationally, about 100 cases of meningitis occur on campuses each year. To protect students, some colleges require proof of vaccination as a condition of enrollment.

Meningitis is an extremely personal topic for my family. My five-year-old niece Tess passed away from this disease, leading me to sponsor Senate Bill 275 to create Meningitis Awareness Day each year on March 9. Because meningitis is relatively rare, parents and students may be unaware just how deadly it can be, and unaware that it is preventable with vaccination. Meningitis Awareness Day is one step toward helping ensure that other families will not know the devastation of losing a child to meningitis.

Bacterial meningitis, the most serious form, can cause inflammation of the lining of the brain and spinal cord, a blood infection, or both. The disease can be difficult to diagnose because symptoms like headache, fever and nausea can be similar to those of more common conditions like the flu. But meningitis becomes serious very quickly, and can kill within 48 hours.

Up to 15 percent of those who get meningitis will die, and of those who survive, one in five will have lasting effects like brain damage, hearing loss, or limb amputation. I believe Meningitis Awareness Day is important because there is a lot of misinformation spread about vaccines.

Whether it comes from the internet or a misguided celebrity, this spreads confusion and fear about the potential side effects of vaccination. I’m here to tell you the effects of meningitis are absolutely devastating, while preventing this deadly disease is as easy as getting a shot. Lives can be saved by raising awareness about the severity of meningitis and increasing the vaccination rate for this terrible disease.

When Governor John Kasich signed Senate Bill 275 into law, he turned to me and said,” We can do more, can’t we?” I assured him we could, and that I’m committed to doing so. I will be seeking the advice of public health experts and others as I personally learn more about meningitis and what can be done to prevent it.

I recently read that, according to Dr. Michael Brady, chair of the department of pediatrics at Columbus’ Nationwide Children’s Hospital, children too young to receive the meningococcal vaccine can be protected against meningitis by the Haemophilus influenzae type b vaccine. This is just one example of the type of information we need to put in the hands of parents to help them make informed choices about their child’s healthcare.

I thank my colleagues in the General Assembly for supporting Senate Bill 275 and making Meningitis Awareness Day a reality. Now as my family remembers Tess each year on March 9, we will also know that there is indeed something we can do to help keep other children safe and healthy.

To help honor Tess’ memory, I encourage all of our college students to get vaccinated before heading off to school this year. Help us all stop another avoidable tragedy by taking the time to get knowledgeable about this disease.

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Senator Cliff Hite is currently serving in his second General Assembly as a member of the Ohio Senate, representing the 1st Senate District, which encompasses an 11 county region of Northwest Ohio, including all or part of Auglaize, Defiance, Fulton, Hancock, Hardin, Henry, Logan, Paulding, Putnam, Van Wert and Williams Counties.

Prior to his appointment to the Senate, Hite served two terms in the Ohio House of Representatives.

Senator Hite can be reached at 614-466-8150