Meningitis explained
Learn the ins and outs of a disease that can be deadly

When news of a death from meningitis breaks, parents are understandably concerned. We associate the disease with college dorms and tend to fear that it is highly contagious. According to the Minnesota Department of Health, however, clusters of meningitis are rare: the last one in Minnesota occurred in 1999.

Nationwide, about 3,000 people contract meningococcal disease each year, according to the Centers for Disease control, and 10-15 percent die.

Those who dig for their own answers often find themselves wading through heavy medical terms like neisseria meningococci and haemophilus influenzae that don’t make the disease any less intimidating. Below is a hype-free primer on meningitis and college students.

What exactly is meningitis?

The term meningitis applies to any process that causes inflammation in the outer lining of the brain and spinal cord. That means its causes can vary from viruses to bacteria. “The difference is fundamentally what type of infection is causing meningitis,” explains Dr. William Marshall, a specialist in infectious diseases at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester. Viral infections are the most common cause of meningitis and often resolve themselves without any treatment. Bacterial meningitis, though comparatively rare, is much more dangerous and sometimes fatal – which is why it makes the news.

What causes bacterial meningitis?

Bacterial meningitis has several strains, the most common of which are meningococcal and pneumococcal, and is caused when a bacteria that lives in the back of the nose and throat region gets into the bloodstream and travels to the meninges (the protective membranes covering the central nervous system).

What are the symptoms?

Symptoms of bacterial meningitis can be a combination of any of the following: headaches, fever, vomiting, stiff neck, confusion, altered mental state, and a purple rash. “A person with meningitis is much more ill than someone who has a respiratory infection like the flu, especially with the degree of headache and altered mental status,” explains Dr. Marshall. Bacterial meningitis requires immediate medical attention regardless of how mild the symptoms may appear to be. A lumbar puncture is the only way to confirm the presence of bacterial meningitis, and the treatment involves antibiotics.

Why are college students at risk?

A 2001 study by the Journal of the American Medical Association noted that while college students in general are not at an increased risk of bacterial meningitis, first-year students living in residence halls are more susceptible due to the close quarters of dorm living. The bacteria spreads through close or direct contact, like kissing, sharing lip balm, and drinking from the same container – all vintage dorm interactions.

Is there a vaccine for bacterial meningitis?

Yes. Menomune and Menactra have both been approved by the Food and Drug Administration to prevent four types of meningococcal disease, including two of the three types most common in the U.S. However, the vaccines are not a sure-fire solution: Menomune has been shown to be approximately 80-90 percent effective, and that’s only against two strains.

Should my college student get the vaccine?

The Centers for Disease Control recommends that college freshman at an increased risk for bacterial meningitis get the vaccine; however, the state of Minnesota does not require the vaccine under its immunization law.

Monica Wright is Minnesota Parent’s staff writer.