County considers vaccines for resort workers
Pitkin County Health Officials said yesterday they might begin promoting meningitis-preventing vaccinations among resort employees who live in dormitory-like housing.The announcement comes after a federal advisory panel to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention declared last week that all college freshmen who live in dorms should be vaccinated for bacterial meningococcal illness, citing evidence of increased risk of the disease among young people living in close proximity. The meningococcal infection can cause meningitis, a deadly swelling of the brain.Two Colorado-based doctors who served on the CDC panel said yesterday that seasonal employee housing in resort towns such as Aspen resemble dormitory conditions and likely see increased risk of the disease.Last week, Dustin Foote, a 22-year-old seasonal employee living in Snowmass, contracted meningococcal disease and died of meningitis less than 24 hours after the onset of symptoms.Dr. Myron Levin of the University of Colorado’s Medical School, chairman of the CDC panel, said the panel stopped short of mandating vaccines for resort employees because the panel had data available only on college freshmen. While the normal risk of meningococcal disease is lower than one in 100,000 people, college freshmen have a contraction rate of more than five in 100,000.”The same thing has been asked about summer camps. In the case of resort towns, I think a prudent policy-maker – for example your county health department – might want to look at the similarities between college freshmen and resort employees and make recommendations accordingly,” Levin said.Pitkin County Director of Community Health Yvonne Hernandez and Pitkin County Medical Liaison Dr. Morris Cohen – two health officials responsible for advising Pitkin County – said they will decide in the coming weeks whether to advocate vaccinations among seasonal employees. Dense housing complexes such as Marolt Ranch and Burlingame are of particular concern.”[Vaccination] is certainly something we need to talk about. Organizations such as the Aspen Skiing Company and the Aspen Music Festival bring in a lot of young people who live in dormitory-like housing. We are certainly looking into it,” Hernandez said.”I think when the [CDC] recommendations come out, we should offer vaccines to our people living in dorm-like situations. [America] will be immunizing in college and in military barracks, so why not?” Cohen said.The CDC panel’s recommendations were sparked this year by a new vaccine, Menactra, that is effective against meningococcal bacteria for more than eight years. The old vaccine lasted three to five years but didn’t prevent people from being carriers of the bacteria; the new vaccine does. It is thought that as much as 30 percent of the general population are unwitting carriers of the bacteria.How many doses of Menactra local physicians will be able to acquire is at this point unknown. The Associated Press reported yesterday that only 5 million doses are expected to be available this year, while the demand for the vaccine may exceed 11 million.A representative from the Aspen Skiing Co. said Skico will take its cue from Pitkin County Public Health, adopting vaccination recommendations if they are announced. Skico head of human relations Jim Laing said the company already provides extensive health insurance that would likely cover the cost of the $100 vaccine.”We spend many millions of dollars a year to ensure our employees have access to the best health care in the valley. It would be the same in this situation,” Laing said.Dr. Ned Calonge, chief medical officer at the Colorado Department of Public Health, which helps implement federal immunization recommendations, said Foote’s death in Aspen draws parallels to the experience of college freshmen. Foote was from a small town in Washington and had not traveled extensively before moving to Aspen. He had two roommates.”This is what happens. A young person moves away from home and lives near other young people. He is exposed to carriers of meningococcal bacteria and the results are devastating,” Calonge said. “If you have a situation that really matches up with the college freshman situation, why wouldn’t you [vaccinate] everybody? Well maybe you would,” Calonge said.Colonge added that the state usually follows federal guidelines. Since the CDC’s recommendations likely will not include specific language about resort housing, the state will not mandate vaccinations in resort towns, leaving it at the discretion of county health departments.Dr. Reginald Fingers, a Colorado Springs physician who also served on the CDC’s panel, said the panel decided to leave a loophole in its recommendations for dorm-like housing situations.”The recommendations do say that anyone in the age groups addressed in the report wishing to reduce their risk may receive the vaccine,” Fingers said. “On an individual basis, I think it’s a good idea. We understood that there are comparable situations [to college freshmen] but chose to leave those decisions to individual discretion.”Eben Harrell’s e-mail address is email@example.com
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