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The American College Health Association recommends that students consider vaccination to reduce their risk for potentially fatal meningococcal disease, and that college health care providers take a proactive role in providing information and access to the meningococcal vaccine.
Meningococcal disease is a rare but potentially fatal bacterial infection. The disease is expressed as either meningococcal meningitis, an inflammation of the membranes surrounding the brain and spinal cord or meningococcemia, the presence of bacteria in the blood.
Meningococcal disease is caused by the bacterium Neisseria meningitidis, a leading cause of meningitis and septicemia (or blood poisoning) in the United States. Meningitis is one of the most common manifestations of the disease, although it has been known to cause septic arthritis, pneumonia, brain inflammation and other syndromes.
Meningococcal disease strikes about 2,200 Americans each year and is responsible for approximately 300 deaths annually. It is estimated that 100 to 125 cases of meningococcal disease occur annually on college campuses and five to 15 students die as a result.
Meningococcal disease is transmitted through the air via droplets of respiratory secretions and direct contact with an infected person. Direct contact, for these purposes, is defined as oral contact with shared items such as cigarettes or drinking glasses, or through intimate contact such as kissing.
The early symptoms usually associated with meningococcal disease include fever, severe headache, stiff neck, rash, nausea, vomiting, and lethargy, and may resemble the flu. Because the disease progresses rapidly, often in as little as 12 hours, students are urged to seek medical care immediately if they experience two or more of these symptoms concurrently.
Evidence found students residing on campus in dormitories appear to be at higher risk for meningococcal disease than college students overall. Further research released by the CDC shows freshmen living in dormitories have a six times higher risk of meningococcal disease than college students overall.
Close contacts of cases of meningococcal disease should receive appropriate antibiotic chemoprophylaxis, whether or not they have been vaccinated. CDC provides guidelines on defining close contacts and appropriate antibiotics and dosing schedules.
Although anyone can come in contact with the bacteria that causes meningococcal disease, data also indicates certain social behaviors, such as exposure to passive and active smoking, bar patronage, and excessive alcohol consumption, may put students at increased risk for the disease. Patients with respiratory infections, compromised immunity, and travelers to endemic areas of the world are also at increased risk. Cases and outbreaks usually occur in the late winter and early spring when school is in session.
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