Meningitis – What students should know

Meningococcal (muh-NIN-jah-kah-kul) meningitis is a rare but potentially fatal bacterial infection. The disease is most commonly expressed as meningitis, an attack of the brain and spinal cord, or meningococcemia, a presence of bacteria in the blood. It can result in permanent brain damage, hearing loss, learning disability, organ failure, loss of limbs or death.

Certain college students have been found to be at increased risk for meningococcal meningitis. In fact, freshmen living in dormitories are found to have a six-fold increased risk for the disease compared to all undergraduates. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the American College Health Association (ACHA) recommend college students, particularly freshmen living in dormitories, learn more about meningococcal meningitis and strongly consider vaccination/booster doses. They also recommend other college students who wish to reduce their risk for the disease can also be vaccinated.

Following are some commonly asked questions and answers about meningococcal meningitis, the risk for college students and vaccination:

What causes meningococcal meningitis?
  • Meningococcal meningitis is caused by the bacterium Neisseria meningitidis, a leading cause of meningitis and/or blood poisoning in teenagers and young adults in the United States.
How common is meningococcal meningitis?
  • Meningococcal meningitis strikes about 4,100 Americans each year causing more than 500 deaths annually.
  • It is estimated that 100 to 125 cases of meningococcal meningitis occur annually on college campuses and 5 to 15 students die as a result.
How is meningococcal meningitis spread?
  • Meningococcal meningitis is transmitted person to person through air droplets from infected persons.
  • Oral contact with shared items such as cigarettes or drinking glasses or through intimate contact such as kissing, or living in crowded conditions,  could put a person at risk for contracting the disease. 
  • It occurs most often in late winter and early spring -- at a time when most college students are away at school.

What are the symptoms of meningococcal meningitis?

  • Symptoms can resemble the flu and may include high fever, headache, stiff neck, confusion, nausea, vomiting, exhaustion and/or a rash.
  • Symptoms of meningococcal meningitis are often misdiagnosed as something less serious. 
  • If not detected early, the disease can progress, often within hours of the first signs of symptoms.

Who is at risk for meningococcal meningitis?

  • College students' lifestyle factors appear to be linked to the disease, including communal living (such as dormitories), bar patronage, smoking and irregular sleep patterns.
  • Studies show 15 to 24 year olds are at greater risk of getting meningococcal meningitis, and in recent years there has been an increase in the number of college outbreaks. 
  • Recent data also show students living in dormitories, particularly freshmen, have a six-fold increased risk for the disease compared to all undergraduates.

What are the CDC and ACIP recommendations for college students and meningococcal vaccination?

  • Any college students wishing to reduce their risk for meningococcal meningitis should be offered the vaccine prior to starting college.  A booster dose of the vaccine is now recommended at age 16 or older. Even if you got it before age 16, you need an additional dose before entering college.
  • College students, particularly freshmen living in dormitories, should be educated about meningococcal meningitis and the potential benefits of vaccination. 

What is the CSUSM requirement for meningococcal vaccination?

  • The CSUSM requirement is that all first year housing students are required to return to the Campus Housing Office a response form indicating that s/he has received the meningitis information provided; whether or not s/he has chosen to receive the vaccination; and s/he must sign the response form prior to returning it to the campus, along with their housing contract.
  • Registered students may receive this vaccine in the clinic or from their primary care provider.

How effective is the meningococcal meningitis vaccine?

  • The vaccine is 85-100% effective in preventing meningococcal meningitis in serogroups A, C, Y and W-135 in adults and children greater than two years old.
  • These four serogroups account for nearly two-thirds of the cases of meningococcal meningitis in the college-age population. 
  • Protection lasts approximately three to five years -- the length of time most students are away at college.

Where can I get more information about meningococcal meningitis and vaccination?

  • You can consult your physician, college health services center or local public health department.
  • You can also visit these websites:

Meningitis Foundation of America:
www.meningitisfoundationofamerica.org

Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices:
www.cdc.gov/vaccines/acip/index.html
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention:
http://www.cdc.gov/meningococcal/about/index.html