College freshmen, beware of dorm diseases

High school graduates have more in common with newborn babies than one would think. Although departing the proverbial family nest, incoming college freshmen need vaccinations, too.

Meningococcal meningitis, the bacterium-induced inflammation of the lining of the brain, primarily affects first-year college students who live in dormitories. While health experts do not fully understand why this demographic is more susceptible than others, they have long believed that living in close quarters provides the most logical explanation.

“For reasons that are not completely understood, young adults are susceptible to being infected as they go away to school and live in dormitories,” said Dr. David Tweardy, chief of infectious diseases at Baylor College of Medicine in Houston.

The culprit, a bacterium called Neisseria meningitidis, is transmitted person-to-person and settles in its hosts’ nasal passages, where it can reside for days and even weeks at a time. The organism either remains in a harmless state or enters into the bloodstream and gains access to the brain where it causes infection. People whose immune systems have no prior exposure to the bacterium are the most susceptible to infection.

Out of approximately 3,500 cases of meningococcal meningitis each year in the United States, up to 10 percent of patients die within a few days to weeks of contraction. Even those who survive infection may suffer from serious neurological repercussions like permanent hearing damage.

Detection of bacterial meningitis can be tricky because of its non-specific symptoms, which may include fever, headache, malaise, nausea and vomiting. Photophobia, the fear of bright light, a stiff neck and a runny nose may also occur.

Although physicians are not always diligent about vaccinating graduating high school students, a growing number of colleges are treating incoming freshmen as soon as they set foot on campus.

“Getting vaccinated is a benefit to reduce the small but nonetheless real risk of getting this disease, which can be devastating,” said Tweardy.

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