Meningococcal disease is a potentially life-threatening bacterial infection. The disease most commonly is expressed as either meningococcal meningitis, an inflammation of the membranes surrounding the brain and spinal cord or meningococcemia, a presence of bacteria in the blood.
Meningococcal disease is caused by Neisseria meningitidis, which has become the leading cause of bacterial meningitis in older children and young adults in the United States. Meningococcal disease strikes about 3,000 Americans each year, leading to death in approximately 10 to 15 percent of cases, which translates into 300 deaths annually.
It is estimated that 100 to 125 cases of meningococcal disease occur annually on college campuses and 5 to 15 students die as a result. The disease can result in permanent brain damage, hearing loss, learning disability, limb amputation, kidney failure or death.
The incidence of meningitis outbreaks of serogroup C has risen in the past 10 years, including cases at U.S. colleges and universities. Data suggests certain social behaviors such as, exposure to passive and active smoking, bar patronage and excessive alcohol consumption may increase students’ risk for contracting the disease. Recent data also shows students living in dormitories, particularly freshman, are at increased risk.
The first national analysis of bacterial meningitis in college students has identified a subgroup -- freshmen living in dorms -- that is more than six times as likely to contract the disease than college students overall.
"These data indicate the need for college students, especially entering freshmen, to be aware of the signs and symptoms of the disease because of the importance of early medical care," says Nancy Rosenstein of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta, who presents the findings today at a meeting of the American College Health Association. "College-bound students, their parents and college administrators should know that a safe and effective vaccine is available."
The new data expand on a Maryland study reported last week by researchers at Baltimore's Johns Hopkins University. In that study, students living on campus were found to have a risk of contracting meningitis that was three times that of off-campus students. Researchers found a peak in incidence among 17-year-olds.
Bacterial meningitis is far more serious than the more common viral meningitis, which causes a flu-like illness that clears up on its own. It occurs most often in late winter or early spring and kills about 10% of its victims or about 300 people each year in the USA.
For reasons still unclear, the incidence is increasing among teens and young adults, the CDC says. In 1996, there were 621 cases among people ages 15 to 24. In 1991, 310 cases occurred in that age group.
Early symptoms of meningococcal meningitis, the most common bacterial form of the disease, are:
Often, Rosenstein says, these symptoms are mistaken as flu, but "meningitis is different... because it is one of the few (diseases) where someone can be completely well and within 24 hours be dead."
She advises students to "seek medical care immediately if they experience these symptoms."
More information about meningitis can be found at the Center for Disease Control and the American College Health Association.
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