It's that time of year when college freshman are packing up and getting ready for that first experience away from home.
Among the necessities for beginning their college career is the meningococcal meningitis vaccine, which at the University of Kentucky and many universities and colleges across the country is required for incoming students living in on-campus housing.
According to the Journal of the American Medical Association, college freshmen living in residence halls are seven times more likely to acquire the infection leading to meningitis than college students in general, and three and a half times as likely as the population of 18- to 23-year-old non-students.
The meningococcal vaccine can greatly reduce this risk of infection, protecting against the strains of bacteria that cause most meningococcal disease in the college-age population. The vaccine is also strongly recommended for college students not living in residence halls.
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There are three types of the required meningococcal vaccine licensed in the US against the serotypes A,C,Y, and W-135 strains of Neisseria meningitidis (the primary bacteria that causes meningococcal disease and meningitis). There is also a brand new meningococcal vaccine against the B strain of Neisseria meningitidis that is not required by UK, but can offer even more protection against bacterial meningitis.
Meningitis is an infection that can lead to a dangerous swelling of the tissue surrounding the brain and spinal cord. It can be caused by either viruses or bacteria. Viral meningitis is generally less severe and resolves without specific treatment, while bacterial meningitis can be much more severe and result in brain damage, hearing loss, learning disability, or death.
Most cases of bacterial meningitis are caused by Neisseria meningitidis, the bacteria mentioned above, and can be prevented with the Meningococcal vaccines.
The CDC says about 1000-1200 people get meningococcal disease each year in the U.S. Despite appropriate antibiotic treatment, 10-15 percent of these people die, and another 11-19 percent will develop serious complications including brain damage, hearing loss, learning disability, loss of digits or limbs, seizures, or strokes.
Freshman college students living in dorms and military recruits in boot camp have an increased risk of bacterial meningococcal infection compared to the general population. The infection is transmitted through direct contact with respiratory secretions containing the bacteria, so transmission can occur from typical teen behaviors of sharing drinks and eating utensils, or kissing.
Symptoms of meningitis can develop very quickly over several hours or may take one to two days. Early diagnosis and treatment are very important to reduce the risk of dying from the disease.
Primary symptoms include a high fever, headache, and stiff neck. Other symptoms may also include nausea, vomiting, visual sensitivity to light, confusion, drowsiness, and a rash. An upper respiratory illness or sore throat may precede these symptoms. Anyone with the symptoms of headache and fever with a stiff neck should see a physician or go to an emergency room immediately.
Make sure that your college freshman has been immunized against meningococcal disease with the required Meningitis vaccine and that they have had a booster dose at or after age 16. Ask your care provider about the new meningococcal vaccine against type B strains of Neisseria meningitidis for even more protection. For more information about meningococcal meningitis and meningitis vaccines, check with your University Health Service.
For UK students and parents, information is available at Ukhealthcare.uky.edu/uhs/student-health/vaccinations or Cdc.gov.