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According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), there is a modest, increased risk of bacterial meningitis on college campuses. It strikes one in 100,000 people in the general population versus 3.2 cases per 100,000 people living in residence halls. The American College Health Association is now recommending that college students, particularly freshmen living in residence halls, consider vaccination.

Meningitis is a contagious, potentially fatal infection of the fluids of the brain and spinal cord. It is caused by either bacteria or a virus.

Knowing whether a virus or a bacterium causes the meningitis disease is important, as the severity of illness and the treatment differ. Viral meningitis is generally less severe and resolves without specific treatment, while bacterial meningitis can be quite severe and may result in brain damage, hearing loss, kidney failure, loss of limbs, or death. For bacterial meningitis, it is also important to know the specific type of bacteria that is causing the meningitis, so that the proper medications can be used to treat the disease and to prevent some types from spreading and infecting other people.

The disease is passed from person to person via throat and respiratory secretions (e.g. coughing, kissing, sharing a drinking glass or cigarette, etc.). Meningitis is characterized by a sudden onset of symptoms, including high fever, intense headache, stiff neck, nausea, vomiting, and frequently a rash. The disease commonly occurs in late winter and early spring, coinciding with the flu season, which can sometimes complicate the diagnosis due to a similarity in symptoms. If not detected early, the disease can progress, often within hours of the first signs of symptoms.

College students are thought to be more susceptible because they live in close proximity with many other people, and because some students engage in behaviors that can compromise their immune systems. Risk factors for students include concurrent upper respiratory infections, passive and active smoking, bar patronage, excessive alcohol consumption, and lack of sleep.

The good news is that the vaccine is available at USM Health Services for $70 and it provides at least 85 to 90 percent protection against four types of bacterial meningitis (A, C, Y, W-135). Protection begins 10 to 14 days after immunization and lasts approximately three to five years – the length of time most students are away at college.

You can look up more information on the CDC Web site at www.cdc.gov or try www.collegemeningitis.com.

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