Rachel Futterman’s Facebook page still gets new posts every day from grieving family and friends.
More than two months after the USF sophomore died unexpectedly from a bacterial meningitis infection, her sorority, Delta Gamma, still receives letters of condolence.
The death of Futterman, who felt fine just days before doctors pronounced her brain-dead, still resonates with those who knew her and with USF President Judy Genshaft, who sent a letter to students over Thanksgiving break informing them of a new University policy requiring meningitis vaccinations for all incoming freshmen living on campus as of January, absent a medical or religious exemption.
“Rachel’s life affected so many people,” said Alyssa Wennlund, president of Delta Gamma. “The support from the University means so much. Our sorority has talked about some things to raise awareness about meningitis, but USF always seems two steps ahead.”
The policy – advocated after the death of Futterman sent shockwaves through the University community in September – puts USF at the head of a statewide push to require the vaccinations at all public colleges and supplants a more lax state requirement allowing students living on-campus to opt out of vaccination with a signed waiver.
“Anyone who is a parent, including the president, took (Futterman’s death) pretty hard,” USF spokesman Ken Gullette said. “There’s a protectiveness felt for students at this University, especially by the president, and the feeling that you don’t want something like this to happen on your watch.”
The policy excludes students now living in residence halls or Greek Village, who signed their housing contracts under the terms of the more lenient state requirements. It will likely affect only the 30 or so late-admittance students signing new contracts for the spring, said Dean of Housing and Residential Education Tom Kane.
But all 4,400 students entering campus living facilities in the fall of 2008 and those who plan to live on campus this summer must show they have received the vaccination.
“I think all students, even those living off campus, should get the vaccine,” said Kane, adding that his 13-year-old son has been vaccinated. “It’s not complete protection from meningitis, but it’s a lot better than many students have now.”
The vaccine, Menatracta, protects against three of the four most common strains of the bacteria that causes the most virulent and dangerous form of meningitis.
Approximately 100 to 125 cases of bacterial meningitis occur on college campuses every year, and 5 percent to 15 percent of students will die as a result, according to the American College Health Association (ACHA), which along with the CDC issued the recommendation that all incoming freshmen on college campuses receive the vaccine in 2005. The disease causes an infection of the fluid surrounding the brain, which can then spread into the blood.
Between 70 percent and 80 percent of the meningitis cases among college students were caused by the three strains the vaccine protects against, according to the ACHA.
“It’s a general trend that more colleges are encouraging students to get the vaccination,” Director of Student Health Services Egilda Terenzi. “The issue has been put on the backburner at times, and sometimes it takes some event to increase the conversation about the vaccine to move things forward.”
Since Student Health Services (SHS) was inundated with students requesting the vaccination in the weeks following Futterman’s death, the demand has slowed from a flood to a steady stream, Terenzi said.
“Still, about four or five times as many students come in for the vaccine they did at the same time last year,” she said.
USF’s policy puts at the forefront of a push from state universities to make the vaccine mandatory for incoming freshman at all Florida public colleges.
Though the vaccines aren’t mandatory at schools like the University of Florida, Florida State University and the University of Central Florida, health directors at those schools urged the Board of Governors (BOG), which oversees the state’s 11 public universities, to require students on campus to get the vaccine during the BOG’s most recent meeting, which was held less than a week after doctors pronounced Futterman dead at University Community Hospital on Sept. 25.
The board decided to postpone a decision and readdress it during their December meeting.
Genshaft, who has two adolescent children and was visibly shaken at a memorial held by the University for Futterman, told the BOG she planned to push ahead with mandatory vaccinations at USF, regardless of whether they approved the requirement for all Florida schools.
“To lose a student to something that could have been prevented by a vaccination is just heartbreaking,” Genshaft said. “The University of South Florida will not have our students in a resident hall without a vaccination. We just have to.”
According to the National Conference on State Legislatures, three states – Connecticut, Indiana and New Jersey – require meningitis vaccinations for college students living on-campus. Florida is one of 20 states that require students to submit a waiver stating they have been informed of the risks of meningitis in lieu of receiving the vaccination.
The human cost
Since so few cases of meningitis occur, offering the vaccine doesn’t save states and counties money. But the human costs of not getting the vaccine was enough for a government panel to recommend Menactra be administered to freshmen on college campuses after the vaccine was approved by the Federal Drug Administration in 2005.
Among students in USF’s Magnolia housing complex, the new policy met with general approval Monday.
Drew Appler, a Magnolia resident and senior majoring in civil engineering, said the $90 cost of the vaccine was a small price to pay for the security it provided.
“We keep saying we have to be one of the best schools in the state,” Appler said. “It’s time we started being a leader and not a follower.”
Menactra provides a longer time period of resistance, up to
eight years, than the vaccine widely used before its development and, unlike its predecessor, prevents people from carrying the bacteria and giving it to others.
Though military recruits living in barracks who – like freshman – are at increased risk of the disease because they live in close quarters, have been immunized against the vaccine since the 1980s, it wasn’t until outbreaks of meningitis on college campuses in the late 1990s that universities started offering the shot.
Gone but not forgotten
For those who knew Futterman, the wide swath of enthusiasm she cut through their lives won’t soon be replaced.
The holidays are especially difficult, Wennlund said.
“There’s moments when something happens and it just reminds you of Rachel,” she said. “Somehow the conversation always seems to turn to her.”
Following her death, USF did not release whether Futterman received the vaccine, but Wennlund said her sorority sister never got the shot.
“Her family doctor didn’t tell her she needed it when she went to get vaccinated before starting at USF,” Wennlund said. “The new policy doesn’t really bring closure to her death. It’s more, ‘thank God that no one else will ever have to go through this again.'”
Morgan Rotberg and Victoria Bekiempis contributed to this report.