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Important Information about Meningococcal Infections
(Bacterial Meningitis)

What is Meningococcal Infection (Bacterial Meningitis)

Meningococcal infection is caused by several strains of a particular kind of bacteria called Neisseria meningitides. The disease primarily manifests itself as bacterial meningitis, which is an infection of the fluid which surrounds the brain and the spinal cord. The bacteria can also cause life-threatening blood infections (septicemia).

Meningitis: A Serious Disease

Bacterial meningitis is a rare, but extremely serious, potentially fatal disease. It can progress very rapidly, sometimes causing death less than 24 hours after symptoms first begin.

10-15% Of people who get meningococcal disease will die in spite of treatment with antibiotics. 11-19% Of survivors will lose fingers, toes, arms, or legs; become deaf; have neurological problems; develop mental impairments; or suffer seizures or strokes.

1,400 to 3,000 people in the U.S. get meningococcal disease each year, including approximately 100 to 125 college students.

Transmission

The bacteria that cause the disease are found in discharges from the nose and throat. Fortunately, bacterial meningitis is not transmitted as easily as colds and flu.

Those who have more intimate or prolonged contact with an infected person, however, are at higher risk of getting the disease. For example:

  • Friends, roommates, partners, and children who could have been exposed to droplets from the infected person's coughs or sneezes
  • Those who have kissed the infected person or who have shared eating utensils, drinks, food, cigarettes, or other smoking implements with them

Research shows that students living in dormitories and residence halls are at higher risk for getting meningococcal disease than other college students.

Symptoms?

It usually takes three to four days for a person to develop symptoms after they have been exposed, with a range of 2 to 10 days. Symptoms include:

  • Severe headache
  • High fever
  • Stiff neck and/or back
  • Rash or purple blotches on the skin
  • Sensitivity to light
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Confusion, sleepiness, or lethargy
  • Seizures

Depending upon the way the disease affects a person, they may not have all of these symptoms. For example, blood infections may not result in severe headaches. And bacterial meningitis may not cause rashes or purple blotches.
If you think you might have meningococcal disease symptoms, contact your healthcare provider right away.

Treatment

The disease is treated primarily with high-dose antibiotics that are given intravenously and that should be started as soon as possible. Antibiotics given early in the illness can save lives and increases the chances of recovery. However, permanent disability or death can occur even if a person receives appropriate treatment with antibiotics.

If You've Been Exposed

If you have been placed at risk of exposure (see "Transmission" above), contact your healthcare provider immediately to receive certain antibiotics that can keep you from getting sick. Depending upon your circumstances, these antibiotics will be administered either by injection or by taking a pill.

If you are a UT Austin student, call the UHS 24-Hour Nurse Advice Line at (512) 475-6877 (NURS).

Call even if you have received the meningococcal (bacterial meningitis vaccine). The vaccine does not protect against all strains of the bacteria that can cause the disease. While the vaccine provides very good protection against four of the five most common strains that cause meningococcal disease, it does not provide 100% protection from these four strains.

Getting the meningococcal vaccine after you've been exposed will not protect you against getting sick from that particular exposure. However, getting the vaccine to protect you against future exposures is a very good idea.

Prevention

Don't share eating utensils or eat, drink, or smoke after others.

Wash your hands often, and keep your hands away from your nose, mouth, and eyes.

Get the meningococcal vaccine.

Who Should Get the Vaccine?

The vaccine is recommended for all first-year college students living in dense conditions such as residence halls and other group-residence settings.

Because meningococcal disease rates begin to climb in early adolescence and peak in 15 to 20 year olds, the vaccine is now recommended for those entering high school, 11 to 12 year old pre-adolescent health care visit. Don't assume, however, that you got the vaccine when you were 11 or 12.

To get the meningococcal vaccine at University Health Services, call (512) 471-4955 to schedule an appointment. Charges apply.

Vaccine Effectiveness

While it does not protect against all types of meningococcal disease, the vaccine can prevent four strains of the bacteria that cause meningitis, including two of the three most common types in the U.S. It protects about 90% of those who get it against the bacterial strains targeted by the vaccine.

The vaccine will not protect you from getting meningococcal disease if you've already been exposed. (See "If You've Been Exposed" above).

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