College Students, Young Adults and the Bacterial Meningitis Vaccine

College student reading a book on library stairsMADISON - One simple shot can help protect your young adult from bacterial meningitis - a contagious and fast-moving disease that puts young adults between the ages of 15 and 20 at a higher risk for infection than the general population.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), about 1,000-1,200 people get meningococcal disease (meningitis) every year in the U.S. That's a small number compared to the 16 million students who attend a U.S. college or university, but the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) report that between 10 and 12 percent of the cases are fatal even with proper treatment. Among those who survive, up to 20 percent suffer long-term consequences, such as brain damage, kidney disease, hearing loss or loss of limbs.

"Meningococcal meningitis is not common, but it can be devastating when it occurs," said University of Wisconsin-Madison School of Nursing clinical associate professor Regina Dunst, a certified pediatric nurse practitioner. "Fortunately, there is now a vaccine that can protect against four of the five strains of the meningococcal bacteria that are most likely to cause severe disease. Immunization can prevent up to 80 percent of meningococcal meningitis in adolescents and young adults."

Meningococcal disease is spread through respiratory droplets (e.g., coughing, sneezing) and direct contact with someone who is infected. Direct contact also includes sharing eating utensils, cigarettes, beer bottles, glass, lip balm or a kiss. Anything an infected person touches with his or her mouth can pass on the disease. Meningococcal disease is not as easily transmitted as other infections such as influenza or the common cold, but the infection is far more deadly.

Studies have shown that freshmen living in dorms have a higher rate of the disease than other populations. First-year college students are particularly vulnerable because of common lifestyle factors, such as:

  • Living in crowded dormitories
  • Patronizing bars
  • Smoking or being exposed to secondhand smoke
  • Not eating properly
  • Sharing personal items

Symptoms of meningococcal disease often initially resemble the flu, making it sometimes difficult to diagnose. The symptoms can include high fever, severe headache, stiff neck, rash, nausea, vomiting, fatigue, and confusion. Untreated, the disease can progress rapidly, often within hours of the first symptoms, and can lead to shock, serious complications or death.

Rates of bacterial meningitis begin to climb earlier in adolescence and peak between the ages of 15 and 20 years. Up to 11 percent of the population can be carriers of the bacteria in the nose and back of the throat. Adolescents and young adults have the highest carriage rates. Usually nothing happens to a "carrier" other than acquiring natural antibodies, but it is possible for a carrier to transmit the disease to other persons.

"Due to the fact that meningococcal meningitis rates begin to rise in the adolescent years, the Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices (ACIP) of the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) recommends routine vaccination of all persons 11 to 18 years old at the earliest opportunity," said Dunst. "Ideally, the first dose of the vaccine should be given at age 11 or 12 during a routine preventive-care visit."


A booster dose of the vaccine is recommended at age 16. College freshmen living in dorms who have never been vaccinated can still receive the vaccine.

Parents and adolescents, Dunst said, should educate themselves about the benefits and risks associated with the vaccine.

"The MCV4 vaccine is a safe vaccine and serious side effects are rare," she said. "The most common reaction is mild redness and soreness at the site of the shot, which is a small price to pay for the benefit of providing protection against one of the most deadly infections."


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Date Published: 04/11/2013

News tag(s):  parenting

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