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Children's Vaccines Health Center

Risk of Meningitis Upped for College Freshman

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"This group has a higher rate of infection than others in a similar age group who are not in college, or who are in college but not residing in a dormitory," she says. Rosenstein is with the meningitis branch of the CDC.

Randy Rock, MD, points out that the increased risk among freshmen living in dorms may be six times as higher than other groups. "Other studies have suggested that risk is also higher among those who smoke or consume alcohol or spend a moderate to significant amount of time in bars," says Rock, who is the chief of staff of student health services at the University of Kansas in Lawrence.

Luckily, meningitis is relatively rare in the U.S., with about 3,000 individuals becoming infected each year. Estimates show that 100 to 125 cases occur each year on college campuses, causing between five to 15 deaths.

A number of different bacteria can cause meningitis with one in particular being the culprit for most cases in the U.S. The available vaccine is for meningitis caused by this microorganism but it is not effective against the disease when it's caused by other bacteria.

However, the vaccine offers protection against 70% of the cases among college students making it an option worth considering, according to the CDC. In October of 1999, the CDC's Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices (ACIP) modified their vaccine guidelines to address the situation.

"Our current recommendations are that college freshman, and especially those who are going to live in dormitories, and their parents, be educated about [meningitis] and told about the availability of a safe and effective vaccine," Rosenstein says, "So they can make an informed decision about whether or not they want to be vaccinated."

The ACIP recommends that vaccination should be provided or made easily available to students who want to reduce their risk of contracting this illness. They also advise that colleges and universities provide information about the disease to students and their families.

Easier said than done, Rock says. Access to the vaccine can be a problem, as many health departments, as well as physicians' offices, do not stock the vaccine. "The protocols are very new," he says, "So many of the health departments are not on par with them. And if a physician's office does not see very many college age patients, they also would not have a reason to carry it."

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