“College students are targeted for prevention of the devastating illness of meningococcal infection because they are among those most at risk,” said Donald K. Murphey, MD, an infectious disease specialist at Dell Children's Medical Center in Austin and a consultant to TMA’s Child and Adolescent Health Committee.
Meningococcal disease affects people who live in close quarters like dormitories, such as college students and military recruits. Meningococcal disease is a potentially devastating bacterial infection that spreads through coughing and sneezing, sharing drinks or utensils, and kissing or other person-to-person contact. Preschool children also are at high risk, doctors note.
“When this disease arises, it is often very severe,” said Dr. Murphey, “taking normal, healthy young adults and in a matter of hours putting them at risk of death.” After its initial flu-like symptoms, meningococcal disease kills about 10 percent of sufferers even if they have begun to receive treatment ― often within hours of the onset of symptoms. Dozens of patients contracted bacterial meningitis last year, with adolescents and young adults being most susceptible.
Survivors can suffer severe, lifelong complications. Dr. Murphey said those can include loss of limbs, deafness, strokes, and organ failure.
The good news is that vaccination works to prevent meningococcal disease. Doctors believe that as many as four out of five of the adolescents and young adults who contract the infection could have avoided it, had they been vaccinated. The meningococcal vaccine protects against four of the five common strains of the disease.
If a college student’s vaccinations are up to date, most likely the student had a meningococcal vaccination or booster, which is recommended for adolescents at age 11 and 12. Protection from the vaccine lasts for several years but typically not through the college years, so a second vaccination is needed at age 16 to boost immunity. Students should check with their doctor to see if they are up to date. Free and low-cost vaccinations may be available for teens and young adults who don’t have health insurance.
TMA has published a fact sheet about the importance of meningococcal vaccination, in English and Spanish.