CBSN

Battling A Campus Killer

Michael Skowronek overcame a childhood learning disability to get himself into Drexel University, reports CBS News Correspondent Elizabeth Kaledin.

"We had some high hopes in terms of who he was going to be and what he was going to do," says Michael's mother, Linda Skowronek.

But in 1996, just six weeks into his freshman year, Michael contracted bacterial meningitis. He was rushed to the hospital at 11:00 in the morning, and by 8:30 that night he was dead.

"Our concern when he went to school in an inner city was in terms of personal safety, going back and forth across the campus," says Linda. "I never worried about this."

Meningitis is still extremely rare in the general population, but cases like Michael's are on the rise. Among 15- to 24-year-olds, the incidence has doubled in the last five years. And college campuses, where people live in close quarters and get little sleep, are emerging as meningitis hot zones.

"There are certain features of college life which put college students at risk," says Dr. James Turner, the director of department of student health at the University of Virginia. "We know that living in crowded conditions, dormitories or residence halls puts them at greater risk."

On Wednesday, the Centers for Disease Control's Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices recommended that incoming college freshmen and their parents be given information about a vaccine for meningitis.

This week, Michigan State University began a mass vaccination in the wake of just one case.

The vaccine has been available since 1981 -- a fact people like Melanie Benn never knew, but wishes she had.

The meningitis she contracted as a college freshman caused gangrene, and Melanie's limbs were amputated. Now she devotes her time to spreading the word about meningitis on campuses.

"It's scary that a lot of people don't know about it or the vaccine," she says, "and I just think people have the right to know."

Dr. Turner urges college students to get the vaccine. "I believe that based on what we know now, college students who are entering for the first time, particularly those who are living in dormitories, should consider getting the vaccine."

Michael Skowronek's parents agree and think the government, which mandates the vaccine for all military recruits, is to blame for failing to educate the general public about a preventable disease.

"It's too late, but it would not be too little if they required the vaccine for college freshman," says Michael's father, Carl Skowronek.

Public health officials say a mandatory vaccine is unnecessary. But just recommending the little-known vaccine may be a big step, they say, towards saving young lives like Michael Skowronek's.

For more information on meningitis, look here:
College Dorm lert
Meningitis Foundation of America
CDC Meningitis Advisory