Freshmen a target for Meningitis outbreak; students encouraged to be aware of symptoms, precautions

By Dale Peacock, Editorial Editor

All it takes is 24 hours for a healthy, thriving college student to become a bedridden medical emergency; the culprit: bacterial meningitis.

There have been at least 34 cases of bacterial meningitis documented in Houston and the surrounding counties within the last three months, according to Doug McBride, public information officer for the Texas Department of Health. 

College students, especially freshmen and those living in campus housing, have been identified as an at-risk group.  It is important that they become educated about how to prevent and recognize the disease, said Kathy Barton, chief of public affairs for the City of Houston’s Health and Human Services Epidemiology Department.  She said the reason college students are at a higher risk level than the general public is simple. 

“Any group of people who are in a new congregate setting, especially with close quarters, like a college dormitory, are at a higher risk.”

The Center for Disease Control and Prevention’s Web site describes meningitis as an infection of the fluid of a person’s spinal cord and the fluid surrounding the brain.  It is also referred to as spinal meningitis.  The disease is caused by either a virus or bacterium and the infection may be very different depending on which is the cause.  While viral meningitis is usually not as severe as bacterial meningitis and resolves without specific treatment, bacterial meningitis can be very severe and can result in a number of permanent consequences like brain damage or hearing loss.

Meningitis can be spread through the exchange of respiratory and throat secretions, according to the CDC.  Although none of the bacteria that cause meningitis are spread by casual contact or breathing the air where a person infected with meningitis has been, people in the same household or anyone with direct contact with a patient’s oral secretions (such as a boyfriend or girlfriend) would be considered at increased risk of contracting the disease.

Students primarily need to know good prevention habits, said Director of Student Health Services Deb Berry.  She suggested that students pay increased attention to practicing good hygiene.  Berry said students should do this by using precautions similar to those used to prevent the cold or flu, especially by washing hands thoroughly and disinfecting door handles and telephone receivers, areas of high traffic. 

Barton agreed, saying students should be cautious about sharing food, drinks or even cigarettes, and suggested that they try to maintain their personal space.

In addition to precautions, students should be aware of the symptoms of the disease and be able to easily recognize them, as early detection is of utmost importance in treating meningitis, said Jack Purcell, vice-president for student affairs.

“The first 24 hours are the most important.  We want students to know what to do.  The main thing is to get immediate help if someone shows symptoms.”

These symptoms include high fever, headache and stiffness in the neck, according to the CDC.  Other symptoms may include nausea, vomiting, discomfort while looking into bright lights, confusion and sleepiness.  Berry said a simple test for one of the most significant symptoms, stiffness in the neck, is whether or not a student can touch his or her chin to their chest.  If this is too painful or the person cannot do it, then they may have a meningitis infection.

At the first signs of these symptoms, especially the first three, students should take it seriously and immediately seek medical attention, Berry said.

“If a person came up to you and said ‘Gee, I don’t feel so well, I have a sore throat, I have a fever and my neck is stiff,’ I’d send them right off to the E.R.,” Berry said.  “They need to initiate therapy right away.”

Many students may not realize the importance of an outbreak 45 miles away, but for one University student, the reality of the disease became very real.  Sophomore Daniella Tiller witnessed firsthand the effects of the disease as her younger brother, Trace, 13, contracted and was treated for meningitis last week.

Tiller said Trace got sick Monday night with a fever and nausea, but his parents thought he had the flu.  By the next night, his temperature rose to 105 degrees.  When his parents noticed a rash on his feet, they took him to Texas Children’s Hospital where he was immediately admitted to the ICU.  Shortly after he was admitted to the ICU, his vital signs dropped.

Tiller said the worst part of the ordeal was waiting to find out if he would recover.

“It’s hard to sit there and wait for a phone call.  You don’t want to think the worst, but you do – to prepare yourself – because it could go either way.”

However, Tiller said her brother has gotten better and is on his way to recovery. 

Vaccinations are available in the nursing office located inside the Office of Student Affairs.

For more information about meningitis, visit the following Web site of the CDC:

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