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Risk of Meningitis Upped for College Freshman

WebMD Health News

Aug. 21, 2000 -- Is your child off to college this fall? If you've made a checklist of items to pack and things to take care of before he or she goes, you may want to add just one more item -- a meningitis vaccination. Growing research has found that some groups of college students may be at a higher risk of contracting bacterial meningitis, and that risk can be minimized by means of quick injection.

Meningitis causes an inflammation of the membranes surrounding the brain and spinal cord, and it can be life threatening. Some forms of bacterial meningitis are contagious and are spread through the air in much the same way as a cold or the flu. It also can be transmitted by direct contact with an infected person, such as sharing drinking glasses or cigarettes, or through intimate contact such as kissing. Also, people may carry the infection without actually being sick.

So how high is the risk for a college student? That information isn't clear and varies among different populations.

One of the largest and most recently published studies took a look at the infection rate among 2,500 students at the University of Nottingham in the U.K. The researchers examined the students and found that the number carrying the infection increased dramatically over a four-day period at the start of their fall term. By December, one third of the students tested were found to be carrying the bacteria.

"The study suggests that during the first month of the term, the carriage increases among incoming students," Nancy Rosenstein, MD, tells WebMD. But students in this country should not get overly alarmed, as there are differences between the U.K. and the U.S.

Unlike the U.K., American college students are not at a higher risk for meningitis when compared to other people in the same age group. In fact, the infection rates are overall lower for college students than for their counterparts who are not in school. But there is one exception: college freshmen living in dormitories.

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