Meningitis is a disease that causes the membranes covering the brain and spinal cord, otherwise known as the meninges, to become inflamed. The inflammation can be caused by the presence of a virus, bacteria, or other foreign body. The most common symptoms of meningitis are neck stiffness and headache, accompanied with traditional flu-like symptoms including, but not limited to, fever, body aches, confusion or altered consciousness, and vomiting. Meningitis can be life threatening because of its affect on the brain and spinal chord and is therefore considered a medical emergency.
Meningitis breakouts occur in areas where people live together for the first time, such as college student dormitories or military barracks. Meningitis epidemics have long been observed in colleges through the United States. The epidemics have resulted in long-term health complications for those who became afflicted with the disease and, in some cases, have resulted in death. Despite these facts, the Centers for Disease Control have stated that college freshman living in dormitories are only “at a modestly increased risk for meningococcal disease compared with other persons of the same age.”
While the risk of being stricken with meningitis as a college freshman may only be “modestly increased,” the opportunity cost of an infection on campus is quite high. For the infected individual especially, he or she will be quarantined, unable to attend class and possible unable to finish the semester or year’s studies (not to mention the pain associated with the illness). For others on campus, including non-infected students and teachers, meningitis has a significant effect. For example, classes may be canceled for fear of exposing the population to the disease, campus personnel and residents may need to undergo meningitis screening, and buildings may be closed pending measures to disinfect campus. Clearly, a breakout on campus, whether made up of a single infected person or several, carries significant costs for a campus, financial and otherwise.
So what can be done to avoid outbreaks and the spread of the disease? The first line of defense against bacterial meningitis is vaccination. Due to the increased risk of the disease in college freshman, the Centers for Disease Control recommends that college freshman living in dormitories should be vaccinated with meningococcal conjugate vaccine before college entry if they have not previously been vaccinated. Given the significant losses, financial and other, that can result from a disease outbreak, this author agrees with the CDC’s recommendation concerning vaccination.