College Freshman At Higher Risk for Bacterial Meningitis

PITTSBURGH, Pa-Bacterial meningitis is a scary disease. While there is no doubt what causes the sickness, there is little public awareness and a small window of opportunity to fight the bacteria before it causes serious damage.

The highly contagious bacteria are spread by direct droplets. A cough, sneeze, kiss, or a drink from an infected cup can leave a person unwittingly infected and facing a life threatening infection.

A new study published in The Journal of the American Medical Association recently reported that college students living in freshmen dormitories are three times more likely to become infected with the disease than the general population. Researchers say living in close quarters places young students at risk, especially if they are smokers or if they participate in binge drinking. Both habits increase the chance of transmitting the infection because of shared cigarettes and glasses.

Meningitis can be spread by two different pathogens. The bacterial form, caused by Neisseria meningitidis, is also known as meningococcal meningitis. While this form usually begins with flu-like symptoms, it can quickly cause a headache, fever, sore throat, nausea, vomiting, a stiff neck, and patients complain about bright lights. Within a few hours, this bacterium can push a person to delirium, coma, or convulsions. It develops in the bloodstream and if the bacterium goes untreated, it can invade organs, cause a hemorrhagic rash, and gangrene. It is fatal in 15% of patients treated with antibiotics and 50% of patients who go untreated.

The viral form of meningitis is more common. It is also less likely to cause illness or death. Many people recover from the infection on their own, while some require an antiviral medication. According to officials at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the virus is caused by enteroviruses, such as coxsackieviruses and echoviruses.  Herpesviruses and the mumps virus can also cause viral meningitis.

Most people recover in 7-10 days from their infection.

Both the bacterial and viral forms of meningitis cause the membrane surrounding the brain and spinal cord to swell. An infection can be serotyped after fluid is collected via a spinal tap. The most commons serotypes in young adults are A and C.

Researchers are now looking for new methods of educating young people about bacterial meningitis, especially those in college. Research shows an excessively high number of meningitis patients are children and young adults. While a vaccine is available to protect people against serotypes A,C, Y, and W135, there is no vaccine for Type B, which usually hits young children. However, these children should already be protected through the Hemophilus influenza b (Hib) vaccine given to infants in the US.

With college course starting for the fall semester, healthcare officials are urging students to become aware of the potential risk and to get a vaccine. While vaccinations against four strains of the bacterium are available, it is expensive ($75), and still has a few problems. It does not work on all patients and remains effective for three years. Pharmaceutical companies are in a global race to manufacture a more refined vaccine that would protect people against more strains, for longer periods of time. Yet, if an entire dormitory received the current available vaccine, a "herd" phenomenon would take place and significantly reduce infection rates.

Students are asked to check with their college healthcare centers to see if the vaccine is available, or if more information is being distributed.

CDC officials recommend handwashing and not sharing items that have touched another person's mouth (i.e., glasses, cigarettes) as methods of prevention.

Information from www.washingtonpost.com, www.cdc.gov

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