The U.S. Centers for Disease Control has alerted physicians to watch for patients who may be related to a meningococcal outbreak at Princeton University and the University of California, Santa Barbara.
With students and staff traveling home to their states for the holidays, those exposed to the deadly bacterial infection may pose a potential risk of spreading the disease if they have been infected.
Four students at the University of California, Santa Barbara, have been confirmed with the disease. One has become permanently disabled, losing both feet to amputation, according to the Santa Barbara Public Health Department. Eight cases have been confirmed on the campus of Princeton University in New Jersey.
The students who have received testing have been confirmed to be infected by the serogroup B type meningococcal disease, for which there is no approved vaccine, said Amy Carter, a communicable disease and epidemiology nurse with the Weber-Morgan Health Department.
"Meningococcal disease is any infection caused by the bacterium Neisseria meningitidis or meningococcus," she said. "Any infection caused by that bacteria is known as meningococcal disease. One serious infection it can cause is meningococcal meningitis."
According to the Utah Department of Health, seven cases of meningococcal disease have been reported in the state this year.
Carter said while no cases in Utah are linked to the outbreaks on either campus experiencing the outbreak, physicians have been alerted to watch for symptoms, especially in those who may be traveling home from Princeton or UCSB for the holidays.
The bacteria can be spread through saliva by way of kissing, coughing, sharing drinks or other close contact, Carter said.
Approximately 10 percent of people harbor it in the back of their nose and throat but show no signs or symptoms of the disease. Symptoms can include fever, headache, a stiff neck, increased sensitivity to light, confusion, nausea and vomiting. In severe cases, the bacteria can cause death within hours of the onset of symptoms.
"Certain groups of people are at increased risk for meningococcal disease," Carter said. "For some of these groups, there are vaccines that prevent two of the three major serogroups, or strains, or Neisseria meningitidis bacteria that cause most illness in the United States.
"Vaccination is the best thing these people can do to decrease their risk."
Those at a higher risk of contracting the disease include those living in close quarters, such as in college dorms or the military.
Infants, adolescents and young adults are also at an increased risk. Certain diseases, medications and surgical procedures, such as not having a spleen, can also put some people at an increased risk.
Travelers to the meningitis belt in sub-Saharan Africa may also be at risk, especially during the dry season.
"In newborns and infants, the classic symptoms of fever, headache and neck stiffness may be absent or difficult to notice. The infant may appear to be slow or inactive, irritable, vomiting or feeding poorly," Carter said.
"In young infants, doctors may look for a bulging soft spot on the infant's head or abnormal reflexes, which can also be signs of meningitis. If you think your infant has any of these symptoms, call the doctor or clinic right away."
In addition, Carter said, if you are experiencing any suspicious symptoms related to the disease, get medical help immediately.
"Meningococcal meningitis is very serious and can be fatal. In fatal cases, deaths can occur in as little as a few hours," Carter said. "In nonfatal cases, permanent disabilities can include hearing loss and brain damage."
While there is no vaccine available for the current outbreak, Carter said, there are two others that protect against four types of meningococcal disease. Those include groups A, C, Y and W-135.