Student health: How to protect yourself from meningitis

Meningitis is common on college campuses due to crowded dorms and busy cafeteria settings. (Courtesy of Bloomberg via Getty Images)

Meningitis is common on college campuses due to crowded dorms and busy cafeteria settings. (Courtesy of Bloomberg via Getty Images)

Since March, Princeton University has seen seven cases of bacterial meningitis. What’s notable about the Princeton cases is that they are the rare strain B. Meningitis, which can arise in crowded dorm rooms on college campuses. Living and eating in close proximity, such as in college dorms, help spread the disease. Here is some information on meningitis, the risks for contracting it and tips for prevention. Also ask your student health center for information.

Causes and risks of meningitis

Meningitis, the inflammation of the membranes around your brain and spinal cord, is caused by a viral infection or a bacterial infection, the latter of which is the more serious form. Symptoms of meningitis include headache, fever, a stiff neck, confusion and vomiting. See a doctor immediately if you have these symptoms.

Risks of contracting meningitis include skipping childhood vaccines, living in close proximity such as a college dorm, being under 20 years old and having a medical condition with a compromised immune system, such as diabetes. Living, sleeping, bathing, eating and attending classes in close quarters in a dorm and campus environment allows the disease to spread quickly. The bacterial form of meningitis is spread through respiratory infection, such as through coughing or sharing eating utensils.

“We know that adolescents and young adults are at higher risk for meningococcal disease,” said Dr. Thomas Clark, a meningitis expert at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), in “Why college campuses get hit by meningitis outbreaks” posted by Maanvi Singh on, November 19, 2013. Clark added, “It’s transmitted either by close contact or face-to-face prolonged contact. It’s carried through large respiratory droplets or oral secretions.… It requires pretty close, fairly intimate contact.”

Treatment for meningitis

If left untreated, bacterial meningitis could have serious consequences. Extreme complications include memory problems, hearing loss, seizures, paralysis, brain damage, amputation and death. About 10 percent of young adults with meningitis die, 20 percent develop a permanent disability.

Treatment for bacterial menigitis includes intravenous antibiotics or cortisone medications. Viral meningitis often clears up on its own over a couple of weeks. Treatment includes over-the-counter pain medication and bed rest.

Princeton tries unapproved vaccine

Princeton officials have decided to allow students to receive a vaccine for the type B meningococcal bacteria that has not yet been approved in the United States. The vaccine has been approved in Europe and Australia and is undergoing the approval process in the U.S.

“Since there is a product available, it makes a lot of sense to me if the public health authorities go for it,” said Pritish Tosh, a Mayo Clinic researcher who develops vaccines, in “Princeton U. to give students meningitis B vaccine,” posted by Samantha Henry and Geoff Mulvihill on, November 18, 2013.

Under the recommendation of the CDC, the two-stage vaccine will be given in December and February to undergraduate students, graduate students who live in dorms and employees who have sickle cell disease or other medical conditions that weaken the immune system.

Meningitis prevention

Students can take precautions to prevent the spread of the infection.

  • Wash your hands often, in addition to after using the restroom and before and after eating.
  • Cover your mouth and nose with your sleeve, rather than your hand, when you cough or sneeze.
  • Don’t engage in sharing of saliva, including drinking glasses, eating utensils, straws, lip balm, toothbrushes, etc.
  • Avoid shaking hands with people.
  • Don’t touch your face, mouth or eyes.
  • Maintain a strong immune system with plenty of sleep, healthy food and exercise.
  • Get vaccinated against bacterial meningitis if you live in a dorm.

Mandatory meningitis vaccine for college students

Many states, including New Jersey, where Princeton is located, require students who live in dorms to be vaccinated against strains of meningitis. Other states are adopting rules. Jamie Schanbaum survived meningitis after she contracted it at the University of Texas at Austin in 2008. Her legs and hands turned cold, she was unable to walk, sepsis poisoned her blood and she eventually had her legs amputated below the knee and lost six fingers.

Jamie now advocates for meningitis vaccination through her organization called The J.A.M.I.E. Group (Joint Advocacy for Meningococcal Information & Education). “As of Jan. 1, the meningococcal vaccine became a requirement for first-time college students or transfers living on campus at public, private and independent institutions in Texas. The state law is called the Jamie Schanbaum Act,” reported by Cindy George in “Meningitis survivor talks about new vaccine mandate for college students,” posted in Houston Chronicle, January 12, 2010.

Have you had meningitis? Why or why not would you get vaccinated?

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