Freshmen and the Meningitis Threat
by Kathleen Doheny, HealthDayNews, August 26, 2004
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Candie Benn was
entertaining guests for Christmas Eve dinner. But her older
daughter Melanie, then 18 and a college freshman home for the
holidays, wasn't feeling well.
So Melanie headed up to her room to rest and recover from her
For Christmas morning, Candie Benn recalled, "We were planning a
big gathering at our house." But Melanie began to feel worse, so
her mother drove her to a hospital emergency room near their
home in San Diego.
It was then that Melanie and her mother learned why the young
woman had developed a fast-spreading rash and why her symptoms
-- fatigue, achiness, vomiting -- had worsened so suddenly.
She had meningococcal disease, a bacterial infection that can
move swiftly and be fatal. These infections can strike the blood
-- called meningococcemia -- or they can attack the fluid of the
spinal cord or the brain, a condition called meningitis.
Melanie had the blood infection. To save her life, she was
placed on a ventilator. She also had to have most of her arms
and legs amputated.
"We did not know about bacterial meningitis," said Candie Benn,
recalling that devastating holiday nearly nine years ago.
They also didn't know about the vaccine that can go a long way
toward preventing such infections.
Every year, about 3,000 cases of meningococcal disease occur in
the United States, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease
Control and Prevention. The overall fatality rate is about 10
percent, but it's sometimes higher in young people.
Currently, the CDC's Advisory Committee on Immunization
Practices recommends that college freshmen -- particularly those
who plan to live in dormitories and residence halls -- be told
about the vaccine for meningococcal disease.
Certain lifestyle factors, including crowded living conditions,
a move to a new residence, and attendance at a new school with
students from geographically diverse areas, are thought to
heighten the risk for the disease.
As of July, 31 states had passed laws spelling out the
requirements for immunization or informing college students and
their parents about the disease, according to the National
Meningitis Association. In some states, students must be told
about the disease and the availability of the vaccine. In
others, students in dorms must be vaccinated or sign a waiver
saying they've been informed of the risks but choose not to get
vaccinated. If they are under 18, a parent or legal guardian
must sign the waiver, too.
Melanie made a remarkable comeback, returning to school and
finishing not only her undergraduate work but getting a master's
degree in social work from the University of California, Los
Angeles. Today, she is a social worker at a San Diego hospital.
And, before her younger sister, Jessica, now 25, went off to
college, she got the vaccine.
Candie Benn now volunteers with Moms Against Meningitis, part of
the National Meningitis Association, heightening awareness of
the disease and lobbying to make the vaccine mandatory for
The vaccine is given in a single injection, said Dr. Paul Offit,
chief of infectious diseases at Children's Hospital of
Philadelphia and a professor of pediatrics at the University of
Pennsylvania School of Medicine.
"The current vaccine protects against four of the five
meningococcal strains," he said.
Those most vulnerable to the disease are infants, students
living in dormitories, and military recruits. The vaccine
prevents about 70 percent of meningococcal infections in teens
and young adults, Offit said.
Death from infection with meningitis can occur within hours
after onset of the illness, Offit explained in an article last
year in the New England Journal of Medicine that discussed the
The disease is spread by coughing, sneezing, kissing or sharing
drinking glasses. College freshmen living in dorms often skimp
on sleep, further lowering their immunity to germs, experts say.
Symptoms of meningitis include a fever of 101 degrees or higher,
a stiff neck, a purple rash, vomiting and headache. If these
symptoms occur, immediate medical attention is crucial,
A new vaccine is due out soon, said Offit, who predicts it could
be licensed by the end of this year or early next year. The new
vaccine is expected to be more powerful and have longer-lasting
A bill in Congress, the Meningococcal Vaccination Act of 2004,
would require that all new students who will live in on-campus
housing at postsecondary schools get a vaccination. Those who
want to be exempt must present a signed, written wavier.
"It's a horrible disease," said Candie Benn. "The best
protection you have to not get it is to get the vaccine."
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