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Preventing Meningococcal Meningitis

New York State Public Health Law requires that all college and university students enrolled for at least six (6) semester hours or the equivalent per semester, or at least four (4) hours per quarter, complete and return vaccination documentation to Barnard College Health Services.

WHAT IS MENINGOCOCCAL DISEASE?

This is an illness caused by a particular bacterium, Neisseria meningitides. When this bacterium spreads from a local area as the nose to the bloodstream, or causes inflammation of the membranes surrounding the spinal cord and brain, it is an extremely serious, potentially fatal infection. About 12% of those who contract meningococcal meningitis or septicemia (blood infection) will die from the disease.

It is important to realize that about 10% of the general population carry meningococcal bacteria in the nose and throat in a harmless state. This carrier state lasts days to months before spontaneously disappearing. During an epidemic, carrier rates may approach 95%, yet fewer than 1% become ill. The body’s own defense mechanisms, or immune system, play a powerful role in limiting illness.

HOW DOES IT SPREAD?

Neisseria meningitides can be transmitted via droplets of respiratory secretions, and through direct contact (kissing or sharing items such as drinking glasses, straws or cigarettes) with an infected partner. Casual contact does not usually result in spread of the bacterium, since it can only live a few minutes outside of the body.

If one has had intimate contact with someone diagnosed with meningococcal disease, prompt treatment with one or two doses of antibiotics such as ciprofloxin or rifampin is used to prevent illness.

WHO IS AT RISK?

Anyone can come in contact with the bacterium that causes the disease, but certain social behaviors seem to put students at increased risk. Smoking and smoke exposure, bar patronage, excessive drinking and sleep deprivation suppress the immune system and put some students at higher risk. Dormitory living also seems to increase the risk, particularly among first-year students.

WHAT ARE THE SYMPTOMS?

Early symptoms include fever, severe, sudden headache, stiff neck, rash, nausea, vomiting and lethargy. Students are urged to seek medical attention immediately if they experience several of these symptoms concurrently as the disease progresses rapidly and prompt treatment improves the outcome.

WHAT IS THE RISK OF BEING INFECTED?

There has been a great deal of talk about the increase in meningococcal outbreaks on college campuses over the last decade. Although this is true, this is still an extremely rare illness. About 100-125 cases occur annually on college campuses, with about 5-15 student deaths. A recent Maryland study reported that only 3 out of 100,000 residence hall students contracted the disease each year. Thus, we are talking about a very serious illness, but one that few people actually get.

WHAT DO I DO TO PROTECT MYSELF?

There is a vaccine that will reduce your risk of infection. This vaccine has been shown to provide 85-100% protection against the most common strains of the disease, including serogroups A, C, Y and W-135, and lasts for approximately 3-5 years. It becomes effective about 7-10 days after immunization. Side effects from the vaccine are mild and infrequent, usually involving redness and pain at the injection site for 1-2 days. Rarely a fever may occur for a brief period.

This is a safe vaccine that is almost always well-tolerated. Any Barnard student who is interested in receiving the meningococcal vaccine should contact her own health provider. Because of purchase limitations by the manufacturer, we have limited availability of the vaccine at Barnard.

Please call 212-854-2091 with any questions.