Freshman all across the country are moving into dorms and starting their first week of college. Health officials are hoping that, along with their laptops, notebooks and backpacks, they remembered another essential item: a meningitis vaccination.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, approximately 2,600 people in the U.S. contract meningitis each year. About 9 to 12 percent of those people die, even with appropriate antibiotic therapy. Of those who survive, about 11 to 19 percent suffer severe mental and physical disabilities, including brain damage, kidney disease, hearing loss and limb amputations.
Anyone can get meningitis, but studies have found the risks to be higher for incoming freshmen, especially those living in dorms. This is because the disease is more likely to spread in crowded living quarters.
"It's a stressful time in your life to be moving away from your home environment," said Brian Hatch, Davis County Health Department epidemiologist. "With everything going on, and moving in with other people where you'll be sharing utensils, cups and other items, you are just more susceptible to this bacteria."
Hatch said meningitis is an inflammation and infection of the tissue lining the brain and spinal cord. There are two forms of meningitis, viral and bacterial. Bacterial meningitis, also called meningococcal disease, is the most dangerous. It is caused by one of three types of bacteria that include Haemophilus influenza type B (Hib), Neisseria meningitidis and Streptococcus pneumonia.
The disease can be spread through kissing, sneezing, coughing and sharing drinks. Early symptoms include a high fever, severe headache, confusion, stiff neck, sensitivity to light, vomiting, dizziness and exhaustion. A rash may appear on the body. Symptoms can develop quickly over several hours.
"Meningococcal disease can occur suddenly and can be fatal within a few hours," said Cheryl Andreason, a registered nurse at Weber-Morgan Health Department.
A delay in diagnosis could mean the difference between life and death, Andreason said, and students should never try to "sleep it off," hoping it will go away.
"There's a certain percent of our population that are carriers of the bacteria," Hatch said. "Approximately 5 to 20 percent of people are carrying this bacteria in their nose and throat and they are just fine, but they can transfer it to a susceptible person."
From June 2009 to May 2010, the Utah Department of Health reported a total of 87 meningitis cases. Only four of those cases were bacterial.
A vaccine called Menactra protects against four strains of meningitis. Only one dose is needed and is recommended for college students, adolescents age 11 to 12 and anyone ages 13 to 18 who hasn't yet received the shot.
"We recommend this vaccine for kids going into seventh grade, but if college kids haven't had it, we certainly strongly encourage them to get it," Hatch said. "There's no reason a person should die from meningococcal disease. Get the vaccine. If you do, that's one less person in our community who is susceptible."
Vaccinations are available at Weber-Morgan and Davis health departments as well as most physicians' offices.