Is Your College-Bound Student Protected Against Meningitis?

June 27, 2023

Meningitis Blog

If you’re the parent of a recent high school graduate, you may be in the throes of your child’s transition to college. Your child is likely ready to pack up their bedroom for the cramped quarters of dorm life, chatting with their soon-to-be roommate, and you both are probably volleying between the excitement and anxiety that comes with this new chapter. But before the bitter-sweet farewell amid the campus chaos, we have to ask, are they fully protected against meningitis? There just might be one more thing you need to add to your already full to-do list, but it could save your child’s life!

It takes TWO different vaccines to be fully protected from meningococcal meningitis.

Your child has likely already been given the two-dose MenACWY vaccine which is typically started around 11 years of age and helps protect against meningococcal meningitis. At that age, they’ll likely have also gotten the Tdap and HPV (human papillomavirus) vaccines which protect against whooping cough, diphtheria, tetanus, and certain types of cancers caused by HPV. But many parents are not aware that it takes two types of vaccines to protect against meningococcal meningitis. The MenB vaccine, which is also a two-dose series and is given starting at age 16, is less known to parents and many providers don’t recommend it due to the disease’s rare occurrence. However, according to the Meningitis B Action Project, meningitis B makes up 70% of all meningococcal disease in 16-23-year-olds, and “meningitis B has been responsible for all US college outbreaks of meningococcal disease since 2011.”

What is meningococcal meningitis and how is it spread?

Before we go further, let’s look at what meningococcal disease is and how it spreads. Meningococcal meningitis is a rare but very serious bacterial infection that causes swelling of the protective membranes, or meninges, that cover the brain and spinal cord. It is caused mainly by the A, B, C, W, and Y types of meningococcal bacteria. While meningitis can also result from a viral infection, bacterial meningitis, while rarer, is much more serious and the onset of symptoms is more sudden. In fact, it can become deadly within hours of infection. 

The Meningitis B Action Project notes, “Meningococcal meningitis is the most common form of bacterial meningitis in adolescents and young adults.” Being in close proximity to others is a risk factor for catching meningococcal meningitis, so college students who live in dorms or other close quarters are at increased risk. It is very contagious and is spread through saliva from sharing drinks, kissing, or coming into contact with respiratory droplets from coughing or sneezing. While adolescents and young adults are most at risk, anyone can get meningococcal meningitis. 

What are the symptoms of meningococcal meningitis?

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) include fever, headache, and neck stiffness as the most common symptoms of meningococcal meningitis. At first, these symptoms might be easily mistaken for the flu (which is also a serious disease). Symptoms of meningococcal meningitis can also include nausea and vomiting, sensitivity to light, and altered mental state or confusion. Another common symptom is a dark purple rash which is an indication that the disease has gotten worse and is infecting the bloodstream. This is called meningococcal septicemia. Complications from meningococcal meningitis can include brain damage, hearing loss, learning disabilities, and limb loss. Remember, the disease moves quickly and can become deadly within hours, so it is important to immediately seek medical attention if you develop symptoms of meningococcal meningitis!

Not worth the risk: parents whose children have had meningococcal meningitis encourage others to get their kids vaccinated.

Colorado parent Connie Ingram shared her son’s battle with meningococcal meningitis during an Immunize Colorado webinar titled “A Parent’s Perspective on Meningitis Awareness and Vaccination.” Ingram’s son, Jackson, became ill and unresponsive in the fall of 2017 when he returned home from college for the Thanksgiving holiday. He was transported to the hospital where doctors fought to keep him alive for several days. Once he was released, he had several months of recovery dealing with weakness, headaches, and slowed cognitive functioning. Jackson is lucky to be alive. Like many other parents, Ingram had Jackson vaccinated against meningitis, but only for the A, C, W, and Y strains of meningitis bacteria. Ingram was not aware there was a vaccine for meningitis B.

In 2007, Sierra Krizman, a 20-year-old aspiring elementary teacher, became ill with flu-like symptoms on the morning of Easter. Within 24 hours she was placed on a ventilator and within another day she died from meningococcal meningitis. Sierra’s father Jon Krizman recounts his final moments with his daughter, “Sierra’s last words were ‘Daddy am I going to be okay?’ and my response was a concerned ‘yes.’ I was scared to death because she looked so sick but as her daddy I wanted her to feel comforted. We were terrified, the ER doctors were grasping at straws, and I could see their concern and knew they were at a loss.”

Ingram now advocates for meningitis B awareness and Krizman and his wife, Lisa, began Sierra’s Race Against Meningitis, an annual 5K Run/Walk that provides education and testimonials, and offers the opportunity for community members to be vaccinated with both types of meningococcal vaccines. They along with many other parents and individuals urge parents to protect their children from this deadly preventable disease with both meningococcal vaccines. As Ingram recounted, “When your child is ill, how uncommon it is doesn’t matter. A friend’s pediatrician told her that her son didn’t really need the MenB vaccine before college because it’s so rare. She told him about my son’s experience and the pediatrician asked, ‘Did he survive?’” Ensure your child isn’t faced with “surviving.” Ensure they’re set up to thrive by getting vaccinated with BOTH meningococcal meningitis vaccines before they head off to college this fall!

Immunize Colorado was formed in 1991 in response to alarmingly low vaccination rates across the state. At the time, only about 50% of Colorado’s children were adequately vaccinated. A group of physicians and other concerned individuals came together to strategize how to protect Coloradans from vaccine-preventable diseases and increase vaccine uptake. Much work remains. You can donate or discover other ways to get involved in supporting our commitment to healthy Colorado communities today!

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