The University Record, October 25, 1999

Symptoms, ways to avoid contracting meningitis detailed by UHS

Editor’s Note: The following article was written by Carol Tucker of University Health Service for Family Matters, a parents’ newsletter published by the Office of Student Affairs.


Recent news about meningitis could strike fear into a parent’s heart. Meningitis seems to be on the rise among 15- to 19-year-olds in the United States. The Ann Arbor campus has not seen a case of meningococcal disease since 1995. But what risk does meningitis present to college students, and how can it be prevented?

First, some definitions. Meningitis means an inflammation of the linings of the brain and spinal cord. Viral meningitis is not of major concern because it tends to run a short, uneventful course. In contrast, one type of bacterial meningitis strikes quickly and causes severe illness, even death. This most dangerous form of meningitis, plus the blood infection meningococcemia caused by the same meningococcal bacteria, is called meningococcal disease.

Meningococcal disease is relatively rare in the United States, affecting about one in 100,000 people annually. Last academic year, 83 cases were reported among college students nationally, and six of those cases were fatal, according to the Chronicle of Higher Education.

A recent study of Maryland residents (published in the May 26 issue of the Journal of the American Medical Association) found that college students were at no greater risk of contracting meningococcal disease than 18- to 22-year-olds in general, but that the rate of infection was higher among students living in residence halls. However, over the five-year study period, only 11 cases (seven students lived on-campus, four off-campus) were identified among Maryland college students. These small numbers make broader conclusions difficult.

Meningococcal disease is serious. It can cause grave illness and rapidly progress to death if not promptly treated with antibiotics. Unfortunately, it is difficult to detect. Because it is relatively rare, early signs and symptoms may be ignored, and the possibility of having meningitis may not be considered. Also, it can be mistaken for other conditions. A person can have cold or flu-like symptoms for several days before experiencing a rapid progression to severe meningococcal disease.

Learning about the disease can help individuals avoid contracting it.

  • Meningococcal disease manifests with stiff neck, fever, severe sudden headache accompanied by mental changes (e.g. malaise, lethargy) and a rash that doesn’t change with pressure. Sudden weakness may be the initial symptom.

    Meningococcal disease occurs rarely and sporadically, with outbreaks, which are unusual, tending to occur in late winter and early spring.

    Meningococcal disease is a medical emergency. Anyone who suspects symptoms or possible exposure should see a physician immediately.

  • Meningococcal disease is transmitted by fluids from the mouth or nose. Roommates, friends, spouses and children who have had intimate contact with the oral secretions of a person diagnosed with meningococcal disease are at risk for contracting the disease and should receive prophylactic (preventive) medication immediately.

    Examples of such contact include kissing, sharing eating utensils or drinking glasses, sharing cigarettes and/or marijuana, and being exposed to droplets from the nose or throat via coughing or sneezing.

    Meningococcal disease is not as easily transmitted as colds, and once outside the human body, meningococcal bacteria usually live only a few minutes.

  • Consider vaccination. The University Health Service’s (UHS) position is consistent with that of the Centers for Disease Control’s Advisory Committee for Immunization Practice—all freshmen students or residence hall residents are encouraged to consider immunization. This is a personal health decision, one that individuals may wish to make with the advice of parents and a family doctor. The UHS allergy, immunization and travel health clinics offer the vaccine at a cost of $89.

    UHS, along with other organizations, monitors the campus for cases. If a case of meningococcal disease is identified, UHS will attempt to identify anyone who had close exposure and provide advice and effective prophylactic antibiotics.

    For more information, visit the following Web sites: Centers for Disease Control www.CDC.gov and University Health Service www.uhs.umich.edu/uhs/whatsup/meningitis.html.