College students in the United States may have more to worry about than grades and career choices. In some cases, what appears to be the onslaught of influenza or a bad cold turns out to be Meningococcal Meningitis. The rare but potentially fatal bacterial infection attacks the brain and spinal cord.
One day a few weeks ago, a vibrant 19-year-old student at Tulane University in Louisiana woke up with a cold. By nightfall the symptoms had worsened... vomiting, diarrhea, high fevers and chills. Was it just the flu or something more dangerous?
The young college student never got a chance to find out. She died early the next morning, shortly after being rushed to the university hospital.
An autopsy showed she had Type B, Meningococcal Meningitis. If not detected early, the bacterial infection can kill. Those who survive can suffer permanent brain damage or loss of an arm or leg.
Dr. Jay Lingappa of the Centers for Disease Control describes its devastating impact.
"When disease does happen, about one in 10 people will die," explains Dr. Lingappa. "One in five people who do survive go on to have serious problems, neuralgic or cosmetic problems, So the impact of the disease is great even though the rate and incidence of disease is very low."
Health officials estimate 3,000 Americans are infected with Meningococcal Meningitis each year. Infants and the elderly are most at risk because of their low immunity. One in 10 will die from the disease. That total includes young, active adults, most of them in their late teens.
U.S. medical doctors are concerned by the spread of Meningitis among healthy teenagers. Dr. Lingappa says many are unsuspecting carriers.
"This meningococcal bacteria is actually present in one in every five to ten people that you might encounter in the street in the population. It's a bacteria that colonizes in the nose and throat and in many people it will stay there for days or weeks and go away. At that point your body has many times made an immune response to that and you are protected against that," he explains. "So this bacteria is being spread around the people all the time and for most people that is not a concern. But some people end up coming down with the disease."
Crowded living conditions like military barracks or college dorms increase the potential for infection. Medical officials say meningitis can be transmitted through close contact including a kiss or a sneeze.
Over the past several years, families of victims have raised public awareness about the disease and have lobbied university health associations and state legislatures to do something about it. Many U.S. states now mandate colleges and universities to educate their students about Meningitis and available vaccines that can provide up to 80 percent protection against three of the four most common strains.
Sacared Bodison directs the health center at the University of Maryland. Her staff actively markets vaccination programs through information campaigns on and off campus, especially targeting students just arriving on campus.
"As part of our orientation procedure over 90 percent of our freshmen attend orientation," she says. " We actually present to the parents about this so the parents are pretty good about encouraging the students to comply because they worry about it."
Medical doctors like Mrs. Bodison warn however that vaccines are not effective against all strains of meningitis and immunization lasts only a few years.
"The vaccine is not 100 percent. The vaccine does not protect you against Type B, Meningococcal disease and so it's a false sense of security," she explains.
A new Meningitis vaccine has been developed in Britain, where the number of Meningitis cases is ten times higher than in the United States.
U.S. health officials say it should provide longer lasting immunization against most of strains of Meningococcal Meningitis, except the often-deadly Type B. But researchers express hopes that over the next 10 years a vaccine will be produced to protect against Type B as well.