When sending a child off to college, most parental worries center on their child’s safety, grades, social life, and college life adaptation. Now, there is another worry for parents: bacterial meningitis. Of the five common types of meningitis, bacterial meningitis is most concerning because it is deadly and highly contagious. According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), college freshman are up to six times more likely to get the disease than other individuals because of crowded living situations found in dorms, fraternity and sorority houses.
Bacterial meningitis is a disease caused by inflammation of the protective coverings of the brain and spinal cord, also known as meninges—think of it as the nervous system’s protective skin. Inflammation is often caused by an infection of the fluid that surrounds the brain and spinal cord. Although a number of different microbes may cause bacterial meningitis; Neisseria meningitidis tends to be the most common culprit, particularly in college students.
Each year the disease strikes about 2500 Americans and up to 15 percent of these will die. Tragically, by the time a person is diagnosed with bacterial meningitis it is often too late and antibiotics may not always work. Therefore, prevention is the key to making certain that meningitis does not strike. Even of those individuals that survive there can be long term complications such as brain damage or hearing loss.
Why are college students at special risk?
The germ is spread through air droplets (coughing, sneezing) or direct contact with saliva from someone who has been infected. Therefore, lifestyle habits such as, kissing, sharing drinks, food utensils, cigarettes, anything that an infected person touches with his or her mouth may be to blame as to why the increased risk of the disease among college students. Besides crowded conditions in the dorm, bacterial meningitis often occurs in late winter or early spring when college students are at school away from the watchful eye of parents.
How can you prevent this condition?
Vaccines can prevent up to 80 percent of meningococcal meningitis in adolescents and young adults. The vaccine is safe and effective against four of the five types of bacteria responsible for meningitis in the United States and for the majority of cases that occur in college-age population. The vaccine comes in two specific forms and their effect can be protective against the disease from three to five years, which is a typical length of time that a student is away at college.
According to a 2011 CDC study published in the New England Journal of Medicine, rates of bacterial meningitis have decreased since 1998 due to the success of the vaccines in reducing the risk of the disease. However, when it occurs, it still often results in death. Avoiding infection is the key to making certain that this tragedy does not occur.
Quick Tips: What should you do to make sure that your college freshman does not develop this condition?
- Vaccinate your child for meningitis between ages 11- 13, and it is important to obtain a booster vaccine before starting college if your first vaccine was before age 16. Some states require documentation of meningitis vaccination or a valid exemption prior to the first day of school at the university or college.
- Make your child aware of the importance of good hand washing, not sharing personal items, especially if someone is ill. This will not only help prevent meningitis but a number of other illnesses including the flu and mononucleosis.
- Be alert when your freshman complains of early flu-like symptoms especially in late winter or early spring. In the early stages of the condition, symptoms often include high fever, headache, stiff neck, confusion, nausea, vomiting, and exhaustion. If your child develops any of these symptoms it is essential that their local doctor or their university health center be contacted for immediate help.
Dr. Joseph Sirven is a first generation Cuban American. He is Professor and Chairman of the Department of Neurology and was past Director of Education for Mayo Clinic Arizona. He is editor-in-chief of epilepsy.com and has served US and global governmental agencies including the Institute of Medicine, NASA, FAA, NIH and CDC.