Meningococcal Disease

Q. What is meningococcal disease?

A. Meningococcal disease or bacterial meningitis is a rare but serious bacterial infection that can occur at any age, progress quickly and cause severe swelling of the brain and spinal cord. It is potentially very dangerous because it is rare and often mistaken for a minor cold or the flu and, as a result, ignored.

Q. What is my risk for getting meningococcal disease?

A. The occurrence of the disease is unpredictable. A recent study conducted by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) indicates that college students as a group are actually at lower risk for this disease compared with the general population. The overall incidence in U.S. college students is about one case per 100,000 persons per year. However, freshmen students living in campus residence halls have a modestly higher risk of developing meningococcal disease compared to other college students. The incidence in freshmen living in residence halls may be as high as five cases per 100,000 persons. It is not yet clear how being a freshman in a residence hall increases one's risk of disease. In the CDC study, no single risk factor emerged as a significant predictor of risk for developing meningococcal disease; some investigators have suggested that over-exertion, smoking, and drinking may be associated with developing meningitis.

Q. Can meningococcal disease be prevented ?

A. There is a vaccine that protects against meningococcal disease. The currently available vaccine covers some, but not all, strains of the bacteria that can cause meningococcal disease. About 30% of the cases in college students are caused by a strain (serogroup B) that is not included in the vaccine. For strains that are covered, the vaccine is about 85% effective. The vaccine offers protection that lasts for three to four years. This vaccine does not provide any protection against other types of bacterial or viral meningococcal disease.

Q. Should I get the meningococcal disease vaccine?

A. Immunization against meningococcal disease is not routinely recommended for all college students; rather, it is elective. Students, particularly freshmen, may wish to consider getting the vaccine to reduce their risk of meningococcal disease. We encourage students and their families to discuss this issue with their health care providers.

Q. What should I know about the vaccine?

A. The best time to get the vaccine is before arriving on campus in the fall. If you did not receive it at home, the vaccine is available on campus at the Student Health & Counseling for a fee.

This is a safe and well-tolerated vaccine. However, as with all vaccines, some reaction (e.g., soreness or redness at the injection site, mild fever) can happen.

Q. What else should I know about meningococcal disease and the vaccine?

A. The Student Health & Counseling Center (SHCC) provides information about meningococcal disease and the availability of the vaccine to students on the SHCC web site or by making a visit to the Center. When a case of meningococcal disease occurs on campus, the campus works with public health officials to notify students who have been in close contact with an ill student and will provide antibiotics to all students who have been exposed. The vaccine is not useful in this situation because it must be given before exposure occurs to be effective. The antibiotic is a preventive measure only.

Even if students have received the vaccine, they should still be aware of how the disease is spread and symptoms of meningococcal disease. Students should seek medical care immediately if any of the symptoms listed below develop. These include high fever accompanied by a severe headache and stiff neck. Some persons with this illness will develop a rash.

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