Separate meningitis outbreaks in California, New Jersey heighten awareness

University officials across the nation are paying close attention to the recently reported outbreaks of meningitis caused by meningococcal Group B bacteria at Princeton University and the University of California, Santa Barbara.

While the outbreaks at both schools involve Group B meningococcal bacteria the genetic strains differ. The likelihood of this type of meningitis affecting UAB students is low, but an opportunity to educate the campus community about this disease is a critical part of managing disease outbreaks and in promoting early case recognition.

UAB requires its students to be vaccinated against meningitis, however, the vaccine only protects against the four more common types of meningococcal infection: Groups A, C, Y and W-135, but not B.

What causes bacterial meningitis?

Meningitis is caused by the bacterium Neisseria meningitides, which is spread from person to person through saliva or respiratory (mouth, throat, nose) secretions, including coughing, sneezing, kissing or sharing drinks, but usually requires close personal contact or extended close exposure. The bacterium is not spread by casual contact (e.g., shaking hands), cannot live outside the body for very long and is not easily transmitted — being less contagious than the common cold.

Between 5 to 25 percent of the population carry the bacterium in their nose or throat, without symptoms, but it is potentially transmissible to others. This carrier state usually spontaneously resolves without progressing to disease. The majority of active meningitis cases have acquired infection recently.

What are the symptoms?

In a small percentage of exposed, infected people, the bacterium can invade the lining of the brain, spinal cord or bloodstream. Early symptoms include headache, stiff neck, high fever, nausea, vomiting, confusion, body aches and sensitivity to light. A rash may develop later in the illness. These symptoms can develop during several hours, and, if untreated, can rapidly progress, leading to serious complications. It is imperative that persons with symptoms of this disease seek immediate medical care. Treatment requires hospitalization and antibiotic therapy.

Close contacts of a person with meningococcal disease should receive antibiotics to prevent the development of symptoms. Those who suspect close exposure to someone with active meningitis should call or visit the Student Health Center or another health-care provider.

What steps can I take?

With the holiday break rapidly approaching, it is important for students who are traveling to different parts of the country to take precautions to reduce the risk of exposure:

• Cough or sneeze into a tissue or your sleeve
• Wash your hands frequently, including using alcohol-based hand sanitizer
• Avoid sharing anything that comes into contact with your mouth — including drinking glasses or water bottles and cigarettes — or kissing

Anyone with symptoms of the illness should seek immediate medical attention.

Visit the Student Health website for additional information about meningitis, or contact your health-care provider, the Jefferson County Health Department or the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.