College Freshmen at Higher Risk of Meningitis

From the WebMD Archives

March 27, 2000 (Atlanta) -- High school seniors applying to college for next fall have something else to worry about besides their major and getting into the cool dorm. According to a study from Nottingham University in England, warding off bacterial meningitis should rank right up there with deciding which professors to avoid.

The U.K. study focuses on meningococcal disease, a rare but potentially fatal infection caused by the bacterium Neisseria meningitidis. Though a few people carry this bacterium in their noses or mouths and never get sick, it is a leading cause of meningitis and septicemia (or blood poisoning) in the U.S.

Meningococcal disease is spread by close contact with an infected person -- by sharing cigarettes or drinking glasses, for example, or through intimate contact such as kissing. The infection initially causes high fever, severe headaches, stiff neck, and nausea or vomiting and may resemble the flu. Serious infections may lead to irritability, confusion, drowsiness, coma, even death.

This type of disease strikes about 3,000 Americans each year and is responsible for some 300 deaths annually. An estimated 100 to 125 cases of meningococcal disease occur each year on U.S. college campuses, and five to 15 students die as a result.

The new study, published in the March 25 edition of British Medical Journal, looked at 2,500 first-year Nottingham University students. Based on tissue samples taken from the students' mouths, the researchers found that the percentage carrying the infection nearly quadrupled in the first four days of the 1997 fall term, says lead researcher Keith Neal, MD. The rate went from less than 6% to 23% in just those few days.

Students living in all-female dorms were at much lower risk. That is probably due to social behavior by the different genders, Neal tells WebMD. The most common risk factors that lead to infection, in order, were drinking in a bar, smoking, being male, visiting nightclubs, and intimate kissing. "Males drinking in bars were [at] particular[ly] high risk," Neal says. "We found a lot of heavy drinking."


Two recent U.S. studies, one from the CDC and another from the University of Maryland, bear out some of the British findings. Both showed that while rates of meningococcal disease were no higher in college students in general than in other young adults, the rates were three to six times greater among freshmen living in dorms.

James C. Turner, director of student health at the University of Virginia, says the Nottingham study also reaffirms other risk factors that have been identified in the U.S. "The study clearly demonstrates that freshman living in dorms who patronize bars or nightclubs, who are exposed to cigarette smoke, [and] who drink, are at increased risk of coming down with this disease," Turner tells WebMD.

At Nottingham, Neal says, the rate of the disease has been lowered due to an aggressive education program and meningococcal vaccinations. "Informing parents of the risks has been extremely effective," Neal says.

Vaccination rates are way up in the U.S., with 341,000 doses of the vaccine administered in 1999, compared with 13,000 the previous year, says Turner, who is also chairman of the Vaccine Preventable Diseases Task Force at the American College Health Association.

One university that offers the meningococcal vaccine is the University of Georgia. According to officials there, the vaccine produces protection against meningococcal infection in seven to 10 days and is effective for three to five years. It costs $60.

Turner says that telling young people to stay out of bars and forgo drinking to prevent meningitis won't work.

"Parents need to be realistic," he says. "The best thing is to vaccinate."

Vital Information:

  • Meningococcal disease, which includes meningitis, strikes about 3,000 Americans each year and is responsible for 300 deaths.
  • A new study from the United Kingdom shows that college freshman are at higher risk of contracting meningitis, and the risk goes up with certain behaviors, including drinking in a bar, smoking, being male, and intimate kissing.
  • A meningococcal vaccine is available, and experts say that vaccination is the best way to prevent the spread of the disease.
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