On Your Health

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Important Information About Bacterial Meningitis and Students

Schools across the U.S. have grappled with outbreaks of bacterial meningococcal disease, a  type of bacterial meningitis caused by Neisseria meningitidis bacteria, which can sometimes kill in a matter of hours or cause permanent disabilities such as brain damage, hearing loss, learning disabilities or limb amputations.

Bacterial meningococcal disease strikes fewer than 3,000 people in the U.S. each year, but many of those are college students. Teens and young adults are among those at greatest risk, with one-fifth of all cases involving patients 11–24 years old. While bacterial meningitis is relatively rare, it’s also deadly, killing 10 to 12 percent of those it infects. Of those who recover, up to 20 percent suffer from permanent disabilities. 

Although bacterial meningitis is mainly caused by five types of meningococcal bacteria (ABCWY), meningitis B is most common for those between the ages of 16 to 23 who contract the disease. Meningitis B accounts for 50 percent of all meningococcal disease cases among this age group.

According to the Meningitis B Action Project, college students are five times more likely to contract meningitis B than non-college students. More than 50 college campuses have reported cases of bacterial meningitis, including 31 schools with meningitis B cases, since 2008. 

Why are students vulnerable to outbreak?

Bacterial meningitis can easily spread from person to person, so schools and especially college dorms are a hotbed for potential transmission. Students may spread it by sharing glasses or silverware, using a communal bathroom, and sneezing, kissing or coughing.

What are the symptoms?

A fever and an extremely stiff neck are the most common signs. Vomiting, confusion, headache and light sensitivity are other common symptoms. The disease can be overlooked or mistaken for the flu, but because the infection can be overwhelming and cause organs to shut down, early detection is essential. See your doctor immediately if you have symptoms.

What is the treatment?

After a diagnosis is confirmed, antibiotics are started immediately for meningococcal disease. However, the best way to protect against this type of bacterial meningitis is meningococcal vaccinations, according to the CDC, which recommends both the "MenACWY" vaccine and the "MenB" vaccine.

  • The MenACWY vaccine is recommended for all 11- to 12-year-old children, plus an important booster shot when they turn 16.
  • The MenB vaccine is suggested for 16- to 23-year-old students.

Most adolescents and young adults have received the MenACWY vaccine, but few have received the MenB vaccine since it wasn’t available until 2014. You are not fully immunized if you have not received both vaccines.

Many colleges require proof of one or both vaccinations upon admission to protect students from this dangerous and possibly fatal bacterial infection. Talk with your child’s health care provider if you have questions about meningococcal vaccines.