Newswise — Freshmen all across the nation have begun packing in preparation for college. Along with their laptops, notebooks, pens and binders, there is one more essential item they need – a meningitis vaccination.
“If a student hasn’t gotten a meningitis vaccination, they absolutely should get one before they start school,” said Dr. Michael Koller, associate professor of medicine, division of general internal medicine, Loyola University Chicago Stritch School of Medicine, Maywood. “Meningitis is not a common disease but it can be tragic.”
Meningitis is an inflammation and infection of the tissue lining the brain and spinal cord. Each year about 2,600 people in the United States contract meningitis. About 5 to 10 percent of those people die, despite treatment with antibiotics, which are effective if given in time. About 11 to 19 percent of people who survive suffer severe mental and physical disabilities. Though anyone can contract meningitis, studies have found that the risk is higher for incoming freshman, especially those living in dormitories.
“A college dormitory is an ideal setting for meningitis,” Koller said. “Meningitis is more likely to spread in crowded, living quarters like you have in a dormitory or a military barrack.”
There are two forms of meningitis – viral and bacterial. Viral is a milder form of the disease. It usually clears up within a couple of weeks without any major treatment. Bacterial is more serious and is caused by one of three types of bacteria: Haemophilus influenzae type b (Hib), Neisseria meningitidis and Streptococcus pneumoniae.
“Cases of meningitis happen every so often. It’s a life-threatening illness that can kill quickly so it shouldn’t be taken lightly,” said Dr. Garry Sigman, director of adolescent medicine at Loyola University Medical Center in Maywood.
Meningitis isn’t considered highly contagious since the bacterium that causes meningitis quickly dies outside of the body. A person is not likely to contract meningitis from normal casual contact or from breathing air an infected person has. Meningitis is spread from close or direct contact with saliva or mucus from coughing, sneezing, kissing or sharing a cigarette.
“Practicing basis personal hygiene like not sharing personal items and frequently washing your hands are effective preventive measures to take against meningitis, as well as against other infectious diseases like the flu,” Sigman said.
The early signs and symptoms of meningitis can easily be confused with the flu. They typically include a high fever, severe headache, stiff neck, confusion, nausea, sensitivity to light, vomiting, dizziness and exhaustion. A rash may appear. Symptoms can develop rapidly over several hours to a day or two.
“It’s such a rapid infection that if there is any delay in the diagnosis or the college student stays home overnight thinking they can sleep through it, that eight or 10 hours that they lose could be the difference between life and death,” Koller said.
Because of the danger to student, many states require college applicants to become vaccinated for meningitis before moving on campus. It takes about 10 days for the meningitis vaccine to spark a protective, immune response in the body.
“Students should have had a meningitis vaccination at least 10 days before showing up on campus,” Sigman said.
Fortunately, most incoming freshmen have already been vaccinated against meningitis, Sigman said.
“Most of them should have received a meningitis shot because it’s given to children after age 11 or 12,” Sigman said. “But because those recommendations are more recent, a lot of kids going out to colleges might not have had it. Parents should review their kids’ immunization records. If their kids haven’t received a meningitis vaccination, they should definitely get one before they live in dormitories.”
Opportunities are available for interviews in Spanish and English with Koller and Sigman. Visuals available.