Guest opinion: The Doctor Is In: The bacteria behind the rare ‘silent killer’ of college outbreaks

Meningitis is dangerous, but there are way to prevent it and get treatment.


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Close-up medical syringe with a vaccine.

We’ve all heard the horror stories about meningitis: A perfectly healthy college student tells their friends they have a headache before going to bed and then is found dead in the morning. The media labeling meningitis as “The Silent Killer” did nothing to make it sound less terrifying, but perhaps that’s a good thing. Meningitis does in fact have the potential to be deadly. 

The word “meningitis” means inflammation of the meninges. The meninges are layers of protective tissue that surround the brain and spinal cord, and this inflammation is usually caused by an infection from either a bacteria or a virus. Viral meningitis usually resolves on its own in a week or two. Bacterial meningitis, on the other hand, is what we have heard those horror stories about. 

The most common cause of meningitis in young adults is the bacteria Neisseria meningitidis. It is spread through sharing respiratory secretions such as droplets from a cough or sharing drinks. The National Meningitis Association estimates that between 600 to 1,000 people contract bacterial meningitis every year, and 10 to 15 percent of them die. Up to 20 percent may have lasting neurological or other physical deficits. 

So, what are common symptoms of meningitis? Symptoms include severe headache with sensitivity to light, a stiff neck, high fever, confusion, nausea and/or vomiting, and even seizures. Symptoms usually develop quickly but can be confused with other illnesses, such as the flu or even a migraine. 

What should you do if you think that you or a friend has meningitis? Seek medical attention immediately. Go to an emergency room to get diagnostic testing and treatment. Early initiation of antibiotic therapy lowers the risk of mortality and morbidity. Doctors may draw your blood or perform a lumbar puncture to look for bacteria in the fluid surrounding your brain. 

Luckily, the overall number of confirmed meningitis cases has been dropping since the 1990s, largely because of the meningococcal vaccine. Children now receive their first dose around age 11 with a booster between the ages 16 to 18. Most colleges require documentation of a booster shot before they allow incoming college students to live in the dorms. The most commonly administered vaccine for meningitis is the MenACWY vaccine that protects against four different strains. A new vaccine called MenB became available in late 2014, and it provides immunity against a different strain that is becoming increasingly responsible for the cases of meningitis in college aged adults. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention now recommends anyone ages 16 to 23 receive this new two-dose MenB vaccine in addition to the ACWY vaccine. 

Meningitis is a rare but serious disease. You can talk to your doctor about the MenB vaccine if you would like to make sure you are vaccinated against the fifth strain of meningitis. Remember that if you have any suspicion that you or someone else my have meningitis, err on the side of caution and seek medical attention. An unnecessary trip to the doctor is better than another horror story. 

— Holly Conger, UI M3 student