Health Topics and Alerts

Meningococcal Disease

What is meningococcal disease?

Meningococcal disease is quite rare but can be life threatening. The bacteria causing the disease Neisseria Meningitides , can cause meningitis and septicemia (blood poisoning). This particular bacterium is only one possible cause for meningitis (an inflammation of the membranes surrounding the brain and spinal cord). Other possible causes for meningitis include other families of bacteria and some viruses.

How common is meningococcal disease?

Meningococcal disease is uncommon. In the U.S. each year there are about 2500 cases (1-2 cases for every 100,000 people). Approximately 100 of these cases occur on college or university campuses.

Are college students at increased risk?

Overall, undergraduate students have lower risk than a non-student population. However, college freshman living in residence halls have a modesty increased incidence of infection. Reasons for this increase are not fully understood but are related to living in close proximity to each other and to certain risk factors, such as overexertion, smoking and binge drinking.

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 casual contact or by simply breathing the air near an infected person, but require close contact. Fortunately, none of the bacteria that cause meningitis are as contagious as things like the common cold or the flu.

Approximately 10% of the general population carries the bacteria in their nose and throat at any given time. 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 fully understood.

What are the symptoms?

Early symptoms usually associated with meningococcal meningitis include high fever, severe headache, stiff neck, rash, nausea, vomiting and lethargy, and may resemble the flu. Because the disease progresses rapidly, often in as little as 12 hours, prompt diagnosis and treatment are important to assuring recovery.

How can I avoid getting meningococcal disease?

You can protect yourself by maintaining good health and hygiene. You should wash your hands frequently and avoid sharing materials that make mouth contact such as eating utensils, water bottles, drinking cups, cigarettes, or lip balm. Behaviors which weaken an individual's immune system can increase your risk of infection.

Is the vaccine recommended for college students?

Recently the Advisory Committee in Immunization Practices (ACIP) recommended that children 11-12 years old and teens entering high school, as well as college freshman living in dormitories receive a newly licensed meningococcal vaccine. Meningococcal vaccination is also recommended for persons at above average risk for meningococcal disease, including persons with certain immune system problems, those lacking a spleen and travelers to certain countries.

The vaccine is comprised of 4 strains of bacteria but does not include type B which accounts for nearly one-third of meningococcal cases in 15-24 year olds in the United States . The vaccine prevents individuals from being carriers of the bacteria. Protection is estimated to last 8 years.

Where can I get the immunization?

The Student Health Service offers the vaccine. Students may contact the Health Center to make an appointment to receive the immunization. The immunization is also usually available through your primary care clinic.