Meningitis a risk for college campuses

Giving a best friend a handshake, letting a friend borrow an article of clothing or kissing a significant other are just a few gestures many college students do not think twice about.

However, according to the American College Health Association these everyday actions may put college students at risk for meningitis.

The ACHA says meningitis, also known as meningococcal disease, affects 1,400 to 3,000 Americans each year and is responsible for approximately 150 to 300 deaths. Of those cases, approximately 100 to 125 meningococcal disease infections occur on college campuses each year, resulting in five to 15 student deaths per year.

Danielle Castellani, ACHA spokeswoman, said meningitis is a rare disease caused by the spread of respiratory droplets and meningococcal disease is most common on college campuses.

“By living in close quarters like in dorms it can increase the spread of meningococcal disease,” Castellani said. “Through the sharing of forks and kissing will raise the possibilities of transmitting the bacteria, which may lead to infection.”

Dr. Celeste Paquette, a physician at the Thagard Health Center at Florida State University, said the exchange of saliva and lack of personal cleanliness can increase a student’s chances of infection.

“You should minimize unnecessary exposure by not sharing utensils and limit handshaking with people,” Paquette said. “Utilizing good hygiene through washing hands and using hand sanitizer is very effective.”

At some colleges and universities, the spread of meningitis has become fatal.

In an Oct. 8 press release from Bentley College located in Boston, Erin Ortiz, an 18-year-old freshman student died from a meningococcal infection.

For some students the thought of catching the infection is unsettling.

“It scares the hell out of me,” said Dionne Anderson, a senior criminal justice student at Florida A&M University. Anderson, a Kissimmee native, said when she found out the diseases her vaccinations were supposed to protect her from, it “literally almost made me not go to school.”

“As long as I stay clean and keep up with my hygiene then I will be fine,” Anderson said.

Although not 100-percent effective against the disease, there are vaccines that can help in the fight against meningitis.

“The vaccine Menactra protects against 4 out of 5 strands of the disease and can protect and last up to 10 years, unlike the previous Menomune vaccine, and protects between 70 percent and 80 percent,” Paquette said. “Although the vaccine is not mandatory in Florida universities, it is highly recommended that students get it.”

AHCA recommends that all freshman college students receive the meningococcal disease vaccination.

“The only good strategy to decrease their risk is to get the vaccine before they get into the high-risk period in the first year, in a residence hall,” said Dr. Ralph Manchester of the University of Rochester. “College students need to be aware that this is a very serious disease that can strike without warning.”

For Paquette, she has a simple solution.

“Instead of shaking hands, you should go to elbow bumping,” she joked.