Prevention of meningitis in young adults is very crucial

*This article was written by guest author Maya Benatar.

Four years ago, my oldest sister, Emily, passed away from bacterial meningitis. I’m writing this article with the hope that you will have the following three takeaways: get vaccinated, know the symptoms and take care of yourself.

Meningitis is an infection of the protective membranes covering the brain and spinal cord. It can be either viral or bacterial. Both are deadly, but bacterial meningitis is more so. Three Palo Alto High School students have contracted meningitis during their college years: Emily (‘11), Alex Flatley (‘11) and Misha Hindery Nelson (‘15). The disease was only fatal in Emily’s case. However, Alex was forced to endure a very long and difficult recovery from viral meningitis and still deals with symptoms today. Misha had bacterial meningitis but, as one of the latter of three students to contract the disease during an outbreak at Santa Clara University, he was able to look out for the symptoms.

At any given time, about 10 percent of people carry the bacteria that causes meningococcal disease — the disease that can lead to bacterial meningitis — in the back of the nose or throat. The majority of carriers do not develop any symptoms. Their bodies develop immunity and then the bacteria disappear from their nose or throat and they are no longer carriers. However, a few people who are exposed to the bacteria become sick with the illness. Meningococcal disease is seen more commonly in college students (especially) and members of the army compared to the general population, due to the existance of extremely close quarters and sharing of water bottles, drink cups, food, beds and germs in college and miliary facilities. These settings reveal who is susceptible because exposure is much more frequent.

The first key step you can take to avoid getting meningococcal disease: Get vaccinated. Most of you have probably been vaccinated for some types of meningococcal disease with what is called the “quadrivalent” meningococcal vaccine — Emily had been vaccinated with that vaccine as well. But the quadrivalent vaccine only covers four serogroups or variations within a breed of the bacteria,  of the disease. Emily acquired the fifth serogroup — serogroup B — which is responsible for about 30 percent of the cases of meningococcal disease in the U.S. It’s the serogroup that caused outbreaks of the disease at Princeton University, UC Santa Barbara, University of Oregon, Santa Clara University and many others, all within the last three years.

There was no vaccine for serogroup B — called a MenB vaccine — approved in the U.S. for Emily. But a year and a half ago, the Food and Drug Administration approved a MenB vaccine called Trumenba in the U.S., and a few months later it approved a second MenB vaccine, called Bexsero. Before, this was not available — I went to Canada in 2013 to get vaccinated with Bexsero — but now, all you have to do is ask your doctor for it, and you can get the vaccine.

The second thing you can do is to be aware of the symptoms. Unfortunately, vaccines are not 100 percent effective, and until more people have been vaccinated, you may still come into contact with carriers.

If a vaccine is 90 percent effective, 10 percent of people who are vaccinated will not develop sufficient antibodies to prevent getting sick if they are exposed to the disease. Until the majority of the population has been vaccinated, it’s extremely important to know the symptoms, both for your own protection and the protection of others.

Meningitis is extremely scary and dangerous because its initial symptoms are deceivingly flu-like. These symptoms include full body achiness, headaches and nausea.

Symptoms specific to meningitis and should be taken very seriously  They include neck pain, sensitivity to bright light, dizziness, feelings of disorientation and hive-like rashes that may disappear and reappear in different places on the body. If you are experiencing these symptoms, acting quickly is crucial.

Meningitis is very deadly because of the rapid rate at which it escalates. It can take less than 24 hours after the first flu-like symptoms appear for a patient to be completely comatose.

In addition, the bacteria that can cause bacterial meningitis can also infect the blood, causing a form of blood infection, or sepsis, called meningococcemia.

Signs of meningococcemia are more obvious than meningitis: a purplish, blotchy rash appears on the surface of the skin and does not disappear when pressed. This bruise-like rash is different than the prickly, hive-like rash that may appear if someone has meningitis but not meningococcemia.

In other words, it only appears if the blood has been infected. Once in the blood, the meningococcus bacteria spread rapidly and can lead to limb amputation and organ failure. The fatality rate for meningococcal disease that has spread to the blood is up to 40 percent.

The third thing you can do to protect yourself is obvious: take good care of yourself. Get enough sleep. Eat well and exercise. Don’t share drink cups or food utensils. The three students who caught bacterial meningitis at Santa Clara University this past February had all been at the same party, drinking from a shared container.

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