Meningococcal meningitis is a rare, but potentially fatal, bacterial infection that strikes 1,400 to 3,000 Americans each year and is responsible for approximately 150 to 300 deaths. Adolescents and young adults account for nearly 30 percent of all cases of meningitis in the United States. In addition, approximately 100 to 125 cases of meningococcal disease occur on college campuses each year, and five to 15 students will die as a result.
Due to lifestyle factors, such as crowded living situations, bar patronage, active or passive smoking, irregular sleep patterns, and sharing personal items, college students living in residence halls are more likely to acquire meningococcal disease than the general college population.
Meningococcal infection is contagious, particularly in crowded conditions such as residence halls at colleges or universities. Symptoms may include fever, stiff neck, rash, nausea, and vomiting. The disease progresses very rapidly and can easily be misdiagnosed as the flu. Students should seek medical attention if any of these symptoms are present and unusually sudden or severe.
If not treated early, meningitis can lead to death or permanent disabilities. One in five of those who survive will suffer from long-term side effects, such as brain damage, hearing loss, seizures, or limb amputation.
The meningococcal germ is spread by direct close contact with nose or throat discharges of an infected person. Many people carry this particular germ without any signs of illness, while others may develop serious symptoms.
Meningitis usually begins suddenly with:
- severe headache
- stiff neck
- high fever
- skin rash
- sensitivity to light
The symptoms may appear two to ten days after exposure, but usually within five days. From the time a person is first infected until the germ is no longer present in discharges from the nose and throat, he/she may transmit the disease. The duration varies among individuals and with the treatment used.
Antibiotics can be effective in the treatment and prevention of most cases of meningococcal infection; if given early in the disease, or, after known exposure. Death or long-term disabilities can result from an overwhelming infection even with immediate treatment.
Some measures are:
- Practice good personal hygiene by covering your mouth when sneezing and coughing.
- Wash hands frequently with soap.
- Do not share eating or drinking utensils.
- Maintain good general health by eating a balanced diet, exercising regularly, getting adequate rest, and avoiding alcohol.
- Avoid inhaling cigarette smoke, due to the fact that it increases susceptibility to infection.
- Know the symptoms of the disease and immediately see a physician if they should occur.
- Consider getting the meningococcal vaccine, especially if you are in group housing.
- Those who experience close-care contact may be advised to receive prophylactic antibiotics.
The current meningococcal vaccine can prevent four important types of meningococcal disease, including two of the three types most common in the United States and a type that causes epidemics in Africa. It does not prevent all types of the disease, but can help protect many people who might become ill
Up to 83% of meningococcal disease in college students is caused by strains of Neisseria Meningitis that are potentially vaccine-preventable. That is why many schools require or recommend meningococcal vaccination for their students. Because the vaccine does not cover all strains of Neisseria meningitis, it is important to know the warning signs and see a physician if they occur.
For More Meningitis Information, please review our Meningitis FAQ page on this topic to assist you in making a decision on whether you should get the vaccine or not. You may also wish to discuss your choices with your doctor, your state health department, or KU's Watkins Health Services.