Meningitis Cases Crop Up in Schools Around the Country

March 13, 2009 12:00 PM
by Lindsey Chapman
Several bacterial meningitis cases have been reported at colleges around the United States, drawing attention to this sometimes fatal infection.

"Spike" in Meningitis Cases

Over the last several weeks, "at least seven college students" in West Virginia, Pennsylvania and Ohio have become sick with bacterial meningitis, according to the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review.

Chelsea Kanatus, a freshman at West Virginia University, recently died from the illness, and the University of Pennsylvania has reported four cases in the last two months; one Pennsylvania student is still in the hospital.

"This is an unusual situation," University of Pennsylvania spokeswoman Phyllis Holtzman told the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review. "I've never seen this many in one year before."

Montana State University also reported a case of bacterial meningitis this week, and noted that 14 people who had been in close contact with the affected student were being checked for symptoms, receiving antibiotics as a precautionary measure and getting vaccinated if they hadn't already.

Bacterial meningitis can affect anyone, but teens and young adults generally make up about a third of the cases in the United States. College students living in dorms are particularly at risk for the condition.

According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, 37 states (as of 2008) have laws related to meningitis, most of which focus on the school setting. Some schools also require their students to be vaccinated.

Background: Fear in New York after meningitis death

In January, Ava Hecht, a 17-year-old student at New York's Stuyvesant High School, died after contracting bacterial meningitis. The school used e-mail and announcements to tell students how to protect themselves, WCBS TV reported.

Meningitis is an infection that inflames the lining around the brain, and when certain bacteria cause the disease, it can be deadly. The symptoms, which can include a stiff neck, headache and fever, can appear suddenly.

Health Protection Agency officials in Suffolk, England, were warning people that this is the time of year meningitis seems to strike. Children under the age of two are particularly at risk.

“We tend to see an increase in meningitis infections at this time of year. People everywhere, especially parents of young children, should be aware of the signs and symptoms,” said Joe Kearney, HPA East of England’s regional director, told Evening Star 24 newspaper.

Having the flu may make a person more likely to get meningitis or septicemia, which is a blood infection, the Irish Times explained.

“Battling the flu can affect someone’s natural immunity and may make them more vulnerable to infection with these bugs. The very young, the over-65 or those with chronic illness may be particularly at risk,” said Suzanne Cotter, a public health and medicine specialist at Ireland’s national Health Protection Surveillance Centre, in an interview with the Irish Times.

According to the paper, “She urged people who have recently recovered from flu and who have become very unwell again with high fever shortly after, to seek medical attention as they may be at slight risk from meningococcal and pneumococcal disease.”

While public health experts are worried about people getting bacterial meningitis, there are signs that the disease might be becoming rarer. A study published in the New England Journal of Medicine suggests that Prevnar, a vaccine that guards against seven strains of bacterial meningitis, is working well.

Prevnar has helped reduce the incidence of meningitis in small children. According to the study, described in USA Today, the number of cases dropped by 64 percent between 1998–1999 and 2004–2005. For people over the age of 65, the number of cases dropped 54 percent in the same period, the newspaper reported. And as fewer people in the high-risk group contract the disease, it seems that fewer people overall have gotten it; “episodes of pneumococcal meningitis dropped 30% in the overall population,” USA Today said.

Reference: Meningitis explained

Bacterial Meningitis

Bacterial meningitis is potentially fatal
, and could cause hearing loss or brain damage in the worst cases. Some groups, such as infants, older people, those with weakened immune systems and college students living in dormitories are at high risk for the disease, which is fatal in up to 15 percent of cases, according to the National Institute of Neurological Disease and Stroke.

It can be spread through fluids, such as saliva, or droplets after a sneeze or cough. Sharing a drink or other personal items can spread the disease, too. NINDS says, “College students living in dormitories—in particular, college freshmen—have a higher risk of contracting meningococcal meningitis than college students overall.”    

Meningitis symptoms include a stiff neck, severe headache, and a sudden fever. NINDS says the symptoms can come on suddenly. In babies, symptoms include body stiffness, a bulging fontanel, constant crying that gets worse when the child is picked up and vomiting. It’s treated with strong antibiotics, and it’s imperative that a person get medical attention as soon as possible. Anyone who has the symptoms should be taken to a hospital immediately.

Viral Meningitis

The other type of meningitis, viral, is more common and usually not fatal, NINDS says. It can also be transmitted through saliva or other secretions, or by touching an infected surface. Besides the fever, headache and stiff neck, a person with meningitis could also have flu-like symptoms “that develop over 1-2 days,” according to NINDS.

Antibiotics won’t work on viral meningitis, which is why it’s important to get the disease diagnosed. NINDS says that people with a mild case of viral meningitis might be put on bed rest at home with pain medication and fluids. A mild case of viral meningitis would produce flu-like symptoms. For a severe case, hospitalization, along with different medications to control the swelling around the brain and prevent convulsions, may be required.

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