College students, especially those living close to a large number of students, are at a significantly higher risk for contracting meningitis than the rest of the population.
According to a recent warning issued by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, meningitis has a case rate of 1 in 100,000 in a non-student population. College freshmen living in dormitories, however, contract meningitis at an a increased rate of 4.6 cases per 100,000 people.
“In the U.S. this infection is rare, fortunately, but when we see it, it’s usually found in populations where there is crowded living: military barracks and college dormitories,” said Dr. Alejandro Sanchez, assistant professor of clinical medicine at the Keck School of Medicine.
The CDC reports approximately 2,500 to 3,500 cases of meningococcal meningitis annually. Meningitis is a bacterial infection of fluid surrounding the brain and spinal cord.
“If left untreated, the disease is deadly,” said Dr. William Leavitt, USC’s lead physician at the University Park Health Center. “If treatment is delayed there can be serious neurological consequences.”
USC’s Global Health Student Club began hosting a series of events Monday for the third annual Global Health Awareness Week to raise awareness about health issues including infectious diseases, pollution, vaccination and environmental health.
Global Health Awareness events include film screenings at the Ray Stark Family Theater, a Health Sciences Opportunity Fair in the von KleinSmid Center Courtyard and a Lunchtime Speakers Series on the Health Sciences Campus.
Meningitis not only affects domestic populations, but is more commonly seen in an area of sub-Saharan Africa called the meningitis belt. Therefore, learning how to prevent or minimize the outbreak in the United States by educating community members during Global Health Awareness Week are the first steps to solving a more globally complex problem, Flores said.
Education about the consequences of meningitis is a focal point in promoting awareness about the disease. One in 10 individuals who contract meningitis dies from the infection, while others are affected for life. Neurological damage, deafness and loss of arm and leg movement are serious results of delayed treatment, according to Leavitt.
The easiest way to prevent meningitis is by receiving a vaccination for the disease, which the UPHC offers.
“I’ve received the vaccination, but if I hadn’t and learned more about the disease, I would be more inclined to get it to protect myself,” said Kelly Kinsella, a freshman majoring in public relations.
The meningococcal meningitis vaccination is “strongly recommended” to all incoming freshman before or promptly after moving onto campus. The vaccine is not mandatory, however, because it is expensive and the disease is rare, according to Leavitt.
“Some students got the vaccine at home before coming to USC,” Leavitt said. “The rest are not concerned enough to come in [to the health center] and get it.”
According to Leavitt, meningitis is “very rare” at USC, but the risks still remain in crowded living arrangements with students living in dorms.
“I’ve been vaccinated prior to coming to USC mainly because I’m aware of how deadly meningitis can be,” said Jackie Drobny, an undeclared freshman.
Some students said vaccination did make a difference.
Vaccination prevents four types of meningitis and is 90 percent effective in all recipients, according to Leavitt.
To keep a potential outbreak low, Leavitt suggests students make their way to the health center to get vaccinated, especially undergraduates living in on-campus dormitories.
Engaging in activities where students come into direct contact with one another are likely to promote the disease, according to the health center.
“The disease is easily spread by droplet transmission, and college students engage in activities that promote the spread of this infection by sharing cigarettes, drinking glasses, utensils [and] food, as well as kissing,” Leavitt said. “Fortunately, this usually results in passing a carrier state [when an organism is present in the body but does not cause symptoms] between individuals.”