If you have a son or daughter going off to college to live in a dormitory, you may want to give them a kiss, a hug and ... a shot in the arm. I know that last one sounds a bit rough, but getting your child vaccinated against meningococcal meningitis may help him or her to have a much healthier college experience.

Not only is a meningitis vaccine a good idea for you child's welfare, it's also the law: many states require all college students who will be living in campus housing to be vaccinated against a type of infection known as meningococcal meningitis. Any college-bound individual who refuses this vaccine must sign a waiver that he or she has received information about the disease, knows its potential dangers and has decided not to be immunized.

Meningitis is an infection of the fluid that surrounds the spinal column and brain. This disease is most commonly caused by a viral or bacterial infection. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates that a specific type of meningitis, called meningococcal meningitis, strikes about 3,000 Americans each year, resulting in more than 300 deaths. Among all the cases that occur, about 30 percent are in adolescents and young adults (ages 15-24). Further studies have shown that about one in four adolescents infected will die, and of those who survive, about 20 percent will experience some type of permanent disability. Because of this concern and the availability of a newer and longer-acting vaccine against meningococcal meningitis, called Menactra, the CDC is "urging immunization at the preadolescent doctor's visit (11-12 years of age)," as well as recommending that "adolescents who were not previously immunized" receive the vaccine at high-school entry (at about age 15).

If your child is about to enter college, will be living in a dormitory, and has not yet received any vaccine against this disease, he or she can get the newer vaccine, Menactra, or the previous and time-proven vaccine, Menomune (this works great too, but may only provide protection for three to five years). Whichever you choose, either vaccine can provide powerful protection for your college freshman.

About the Disease

Meningococcal meningitis is caused by a bacterium known as Neisseria meningitidus. It can be spread through respiratory air droplets (coughing and sneezing) and through direct contact with persons already carrying this disease. This form of meningitis can also be spread by sharing cigarettes, utensils or drinking glasses, as well as through intimate contact such as kissing. College students (particularly first-year students) living in dormitories face a higher risk of catching this disease because of the close quarters they typically share with other students.

According to the National Meningitis Association (NMA), "lifestyle factors common among adolescents and young adults seem to be linked to meningococcal meningitis." These include:

  • crowded living situations (dorms, boarding schools, sleep-away camps)
  • active or passive smoking
  • moving to a new residence with students from diverse geographic areas
  • irregular sleep habits
  • sharing items that touch a person's mouth, like water bottles, utensils or lip balm

Know the Symptoms Here are some of the early warning signs of meningococcal meningitis:

  • sudden high fever
  • confusion
  • vomiting
  • a severe headache with sensitivity to light
  • neck stiffness
  • lethargy
  • an unusual type of rash
  • this disease is more common in late winter or early fall.

Sometimes the early stages of meningococcal meningitis are difficult to recognize and may be mistaken for a bad case of the flu. However, the disease gets much worse over a short period of time. The symptoms I just mentioned may develop over several hours or even over one to two days. Without prompt treatment, this infection can result in brain damage, hearing loss, learning disabilities, kidney failure, limb amputation and even death. Because this disease is very dangerous, if you or a loved one have two or more of the symptoms mentioned above, please quickly seek medical care.

There is good news: According to the NMA, "Up to 83 percent of meningococcal disease cases among adolescents are potentially vaccine preventable." In addition, early detection and quick medical treatment can be lifesaving. For more information about meningococcal meningitis, please check out the Web site of the NMA at www.nmaus.org