Meningococcal Disease (Meningitis)

This page is meant to help you find information about meningitis (meningococcal disease).

If you have questions that are not addressed here, please feel free to contact the Health & Wellness Services Office.

What is meningococcal disease?

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. The disease strikes about 2,600 Americans each year.

What causes meningococcal disease?

Meningococcal disease is caused by the bacterium Neisseria meningitidis, a leading cause of meningitis.

How is meningococcal disease spread?

Meningococcal disease is transmitted through the air via droplets of respiratory secretions and direct contact with an infected person. Direct contact, for those purposes, is defined as oral contact with shared items such as cigarettes or drinking glasses or through intimate contact such as kissing.

What are the symptoms?

The early symptoms usually associated with meningococcal disease include fever, severe headaches, stiff neck, rash, nausea, vomiting and lethargy, and may resemble the flu. Because the disease progresses rapidly, often is as little as 12 hours, students are urged to seek medical care immediately if they experience two or more of these symptoms concurrently.

Who is at risk?

Although anyone can come in contact with the bacteria that causes meningococcal disease, data indicates certain social behaviors, such as exposure to passive or active smoking, bar patronage, and excessive alcohol consumption, may put students at increased risk for the disease. Patients with compromised immunity, those in close contact to a known case, 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.

How often do outbreaks occur in the population at large? How often do outbreaks occur on college campuses?

From 1980 to 1993, there were 21 outbreaks, three of which occurred in colleges. From 1994 to 1996, there have been 51 outbreaks, six of which occurred in colleges (Woods et al., CDC unpublished).

Is one type of serogroup of meningococcal disease more common in college students?

Recent evidence shows the epidemiology of meningococcal disease is changing with a majority of cases (65 Percent) in the college age group caused by either Serotype C, Y or W-135, which are all vaccine-preventable.

What is ACHA’s recommendation on meningococcal disease?

ACHA recommends that college 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.

Why does ACHA recommend that students consider vaccination for meningococcal disease?

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) surveillance reports over the last several years suggest increasing incidence of outbreaks on college campuses. In addition, evidence shows that certain features of the campus lifestyle may put college students at increased risk for the disease. Because of this ACHA recommends that colleges and universities inform all students about the disease and the availability of a safe effective vaccine and provide access to the vaccine for those students who wish to be vaccinated. Although, the CDC’s does not recommend meningococcal vaccination for the general population, except to control outbreaks, it supports ACHA’s decision to educate students and parents about meningococcal disease and the availability of a safe and effective vaccine.

Why should college students consider preventive vaccination with the meningococcal vaccine?

It is estimated that 125 to 175 cases of meningococcal disease occur annually on college campuses and 15 to 20 students die each year as a result. Pre-exposure vaccinations enhances immunity to strains of bacteria that cause most cases of meningococcal disease and therefore reduces a student’s risk for disease. Development of immunity post-vaccination requires 7-10 days.

How effective is the vaccine?

The meningococcal vaccine has been shown to provide protection against the most common strains of the disease, including serogroups A, C, Y, and W-135. The vaccine has shown to be 85 to 100 percent effective in serogroups A and C in older children and adults.

Is the vaccine safe? Are there adverse side effects to the vaccine?

The vaccine is very safe and adverse reactions are mild and infrequent, consisting primarily of redness and pain at the site of injection lasting up to two days.

What is the duration of protection?

The duration of the meningococcal vaccine’s efficacy is approximately three to five years.