The Master's College

What is Meningococcal Disease?

Meningococcal disease

Meningococcal disease is a serious illness caused by Neisseria meningitidis bacteria. The two most common forms of meningococcal disease are meningitis, a bacterial infection of the fluid and covering of the spinal cord and brain; or septicemia, an infection of the bloodstream. Meningitis has other causes as well, the most common being viral infection. It can lead to brain damage, disability, and death.

It is most common in infants and in people with certain medical conditions. College freshmen, particularly those who live in dorms, have a modestly increased risk of getting the disease. About 100 cases occur on college campuses in the U.S. each year, with 5-15 deaths.

Common symptoms of meningitis include stiff neck, headache, fever, sensitivity to light, sleepiness, confusion, and seizures.

It can be treated with antibiotics, but treatment must be started early. Despite treatment, 10-15% of people who get the disease die from it. Another 10-20% suffer long-term consequences.

A meningococcal vaccine is available from your doctor or travel health clinic. It protects against four of the five most common types of this disease. Vaccine protection lasts 3-5 years and can prevent 50%-70% of cases on college campuses.

Meningococcal vaccine may cause reactions such as pain or fever. Discuss contraindications and rare but serious side effects with your health care provider.

How Common Is Meningococcal Disease?

Meningococcal disease is uncommon. In the US, each year there are about 2500 cases (1-2 cases for every 100,000 people), with 300 to 400 occurring in California. Of 14 million students enrolled in colleges nation-wide, approximately 100 acquire meningococcal disease each year.

How Is It Diagnosed?

A diagnosis is commonly made by growing the bacteria from the spinal fluid or blood. Identifying the bacteria is important for selecting the best antibiotics.

Are College Students At Increased Risk?

Overall, undergraduate students have lower risk than a non-student population (1.4 cases per 100,000 people per year). However, college freshmen living in dormitories have a modestly increased rate (4.6 cases per 100,000 people per year). Reasons for this increase are not fully understood, but are probably related to living in close proximity to each other.

How Are Meningococcal Bacteria Spread?

The bacteria are transmitted from person-to-person in secretions from the nose and throat. They are not spread by causal contact or by simply breathing the air near an infected person, but require close contact. The bacteria can live outside the body for only a few minutes; so if the germs contaminate a desk or book, they soon die and won't infect a person who touches it later.

As many as 2 in 10 people carry the bacteria in the back of the nose and throat at any given time, especially in winter. Why only a very small number of those who have the bacteria in their nose and throat develop disease, while others remain healthy, is not understood.

How Can I Avoid Getting Meningococcal Disease?

You can protect yourself by maintaining good health and hygiene. As a general recommendation, you should wash your hands frequently. Avoid sharing materials that make mouth contact, such as eating utensils, bottles, cigarettes, or lip balm. Contact a healthcare provider immediately if you are in close contact with someone who is known or suspected to have meningococcal infection.

Is The Vaccine Recommended For College Students?

As of 2005, the American College Health Association and Centers for Disease Control both have issued a new recommendation to parents, students, and the campus community. This new recommendation states that all first year students living in residence halls should be immunized against meningococcal disease and that other college students under the age of 25 years old who wish to reduce the risk of infection may choose to be vaccinated. The Center for Disease Control also recommends meningococcal vaccination for adolescents at high school entry and during pre-adolescent doctor visits (11 - 12 years of age). This recommendation came about because of the availability of a new conjugate vaccine, which is approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.

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Ask your health care provider or Travel Health Clinic!