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Meningococcal Disease

GENERAL INFORMATION AND DISEASE RISK

Meningococcal disease is a potentially life-threatening bacterial infection that necessitates immediate attention and treatment. The disease usually  manifests itself as either meningococcal meningitis, an inflammation of the membranes surrounding the brain and spinal cord, or meningococcemia, a presence of bacteria in the blood.

Meningococcal disease is responsible for approximately 300 deaths nationwide each year, with 5-15 of them being college students.  The disease can also result in permanent brain damage, hearing loss, learning disability, amputation and kidney failure.  Research suggests that certain socio-behavioral characteristics of students may increase their risk of contracting the disease, due to a lowered immune system: exposure to passive and active smoking, bar patronage, and excessive alcohol consumption.  Dormitory-style living may also contribute to an increased rate due to the closeness of so many people, thus facilitating the spread of the disease.  Further research by the CDC (Center for Disease Control) shows freshmen living in residence halls have a nine times higher risk of meningococcal disease than college students overall.

Approximately 10% of the general population carries the meningococcal bacteria in their noses and/or throats in a harmless state.  This state may last for days or months before it disappears spontaneously, and this may give the individual an increased immunity from developing the actual meningococcal disease.  During an outbreak of meningococcal disease, the percentage of people carrying the bacteria may be much higher.

Meningococcal bacteria are transmitted through the air via droplets of respiratory secretions and through direct contact with an infected person. Those individuals who have more intimate contact with the oral secretions of an infected person are at increased risk of getting the disease.  For example, friends, roommates, close partners, and children who have kissed or shared utensils with a person with meningococcal disease or who have been exposed to droplets from their nose or throat (through coughing or sneezing) are at increased risk and should receive antibiotics to prevent the disease.

Symptoms of the disease may often mimic the flu, peaking in late Winter and early Spring, and may be misdiagnosed as something less serious.  The most common symptoms may include high fever and chills; headache; stiff neck and stiff back; nausea and vomiting; pain in arms, legs and abdomen; a red, blotchy rash; skin bruises and/or confusion or delirium.  You should see a doctor immediately if you develop any of these symptoms.  If not treated promptly, the disease can progress rapidly.  Death occurs in approximately 10-15% of cases.

Based on the possibility of increased risk of the disease among segments of the college population, Student Health Services and the American College Health Association recommends that students consider vaccination to reduce their risk for potentially fatal meningococcal disease.

THE MENINGOCOCCAL VACCINE

No vaccine is ever 100% effective, but this vaccine has been shown to be 85%-95% effective in preventing the disease caused by two of the most common types of the meningococcal bacteria, type C and type Y.  It does not protect against type B which causes about 30% of the infections.  The vaccine is given in a one-dose injection and is available at Student Health Services for $96.00 (the cost of the medication).  You may also see your own provider for the vaccine.
It will reach full protection in about two weeks.  Those traveling to high-risk countries should allow at least this much time before traveling.  Revaccination should be considered every 3-5 years if you are at high risk.

HOW TO REDUCE YOUR RISKS

Meningococcal disease can affect people at any age.  Other than the vaccine, one can take precautions to avoid infection (although not always 100% effective) by:

  • staying away from crowds of people in communities where there are known cases of the disease

  • curtailing any travel to parts of the world where meningococcal disease is endemic

  • avoiding general close contact with others

  • not sharing utensils, dishes or glassware

  • washing your hands often

  • keeping your hands away from your mouth, nose and eyes