A college student at Michigan State died this month from the illness that causes bacterial meningitis. College students aren’t the only ones at risk. This bacteria infects infants, younger children and adults alike, but young adults who live packed into dorms are particularly at risk due to their close quarters. Summer camp goers and military recruits also are at higher risk.
Not all types of bacterial meningitis can be prevented by vaccination, but some of the most virulent ones are covered in the Menactra vaccine. Children are first vaccinated when they turn 11 and within the last year, a booster has been recommended for kids 16 and over to ensure good immunity though the early college years. College students who received only one vaccine but got it within the last five years are covered, but those whose only vaccine was more than five years ago should talk to their healthcare provider about getting a booster.
All young adults who have not had a Menactra in the last five years should take this horrible case as a wake up call and get the vaccine.
The most virulent bacteria that causes meningitis is Neisseria meningitidis. There are six variations and each can cause severe, rapidly deadly illness when contracted. The vaccine available in the US protects against four of these strains. The bacteria is housed in our nasopharynx, which is the area at the back of the nose and upper throat; most people who have it never even get sick, but can spread it to others. Having influenza at the same time seems to increase the risk that the bacteria will invade and cause illness, but there isn’t a predictable way to determine which people will get sick and which people will stay well.
Once the bacteria invades, it wreaks havoc with the body, causing severe symptoms quickly including fever, bad headache, muscle aches and rash that can look like non-blanching red spots or even purplish bruises. Within several hours of developing symptoms, victims are usually so sick they have low blood pressure and rapid heart rate from the overwhelming infection, which results in shock. Even with aggressive medical care a large majority of people infected with this invasive strain will lose limbs from shock-induced gangrene or die.
Any person who has fever, severe headache, and seems super sick should be seen as soon as possible. People who have had contact with a person who is known to have had bacterial meningitis should immediately contact their healthcare provider to get put on antibiotics to diminish the chance that the bacteria will invade and cause illness.