“Meningococcal infection spreads among people who live in close quarters, like a college dorm or a military barracks, so college students need this vaccine,” said Carol J. Baker, MD, of Houston, a pediatric infectious disease specialist and a member of TMA’s Be Wise — ImmunizeSM Physician Advisory Panel.
Meningococcal disease includes infections of the brain’s lining and spinal cord (meningitis) and the bloodstream (bacteremia or septicemia) caused by the bacteria Neisseria meningitidis, or meningococcus. A healthy, nonsusceptible person can spread the bacteria to a healthy, susceptible person through coughing, sneezing, sharing drinks or eating utensils, or kissing.
Meningococcal disease strikes quickly with fever, headache, severe muscle aches — and later, stiff neck. The illness can seem like flu, but progresses with vomiting, weakness, mental confusion, shock, and sometimes a purple rash on the extremities. Emergency medical attention is important.
“These infections can become deadly in just a few hours,” said Dr. Baker. “With antibiotic treatment, some sufferers can survive, but up to 15 percent have lasting consequences.”
About one in 10 people who get meningococcal disease will die ― often within hours of the onset of symptoms and the start of treatment. Survivors can suffer severe, lifelong complications, such as hearing loss; amputations of fingers, toes or even arms or legs; and skin scarring.
The good news is that vaccination can prevent meningococcal disease. As many as four out of five adolescents and young adults who contract the infection could have avoided it had they been vaccinated. The meningococcal vaccine protects against the most common strains seen in the United States, namely groups A, C, W, and Y.
If an incoming college student’s vaccinations are up to date, he or she likely had a meningococcal vaccination at age 11 and 12. Protection from the vaccine lasts for only several years, so a second vaccination is needed at age 16-18 to protect young adults during the years when they are at highest risk for meningococcal disease.
“This ‘shot of prevention’ is an easy way to keep students healthy as they head off to their first phase of adulthood,” said Dr. Baker.
Students should check with their doctor to see if they are up to date with all recommended vaccines. Free or 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.
It’s best to check and get vaccinated now, doctors say, well before packing those first items for college.