As if parents don’t worry enough about what happens at college, here’s a new worry: A recent study in the journal Pediatrics found that college students are three and half times more likely than non-college students of the same age group to develop meningococcus B (MenB), a bacterial infection of the lining of the brain and spinal cord. This is partly because of campus outbreaks of MenB, two of which occurred in 2018.
Typical meningitis vaccines don’t protect against MenB. Here’s what to know—and what to do.
While this statistic is scary, it’s important for parents to keep in mind the very low incidence of MenB overall. Between 2014 and 2016, there were only 88 total cases of MenB in the United States among young adults aged 18 to 24. Although the incidence of MenB is relatively low, it is the most common type of meningococcal meningitis in that age group.
Since 2005, there has been a vaccine to address four types of meningococcal meningitis, A, C, W, and Y. “The numbers of those types of meningococcal meningitis had been going down since before the vaccine came out,” says Patel, “but the numbers have continued to go down because of the recommendations that all teens receive the vaccine.”
In fact, since so many schools require the MenACWY vaccination, the number of cases of those types of meningococcal meningitis is lower overall for college students than for noncollege students.
Why are college students more susceptible to meningitis? The bacteria that causes MenB spreads through contact with secretions like saliva, such as kissing or drinking from someone else’s cup. Because college students live in close contact, outbreaks are more likely to occur on campuses.
That is why meningitis is more common in college students. While only a small percentage of people who acquire the bacteria contract the disease, the increased likelihood for college students to develop MenB is alarming.
The disease can lead to fatality or serious complications, including brain damage, hearing loss, and learning disabilities.
“Not everybody who gets meningococcal meningitis is debilitated, but the outcomes can be potentially very devastating, with instances of rapid mortality,” explains Dr. Devang Patel, Infectious Disease specialist and Assistant Professor of Medicine at the University of Maryland School of Medicine. “One study showed deaths occur in about 15% of cases of meningococcal disease.”
According to Dr. Patel, it is more difficult to induce an immune response—which is how a vaccine works—to MenB.
There is a separate MenB vaccine, but it hasn’t been universally recommended yet, in part because of the high cost but also because it is a relatively new vaccine and long-term efficacy rates are not yet known. In addition, because there are so few cases of MenB, it’s difficult to determine how effective the vaccine is at preventing infection. That said, the vaccine is thought to have few side effects and to be effective at providing protection against most strains of MenB, at least in the short term.
While incidences of MenB are low, it’s hard not to worry about a disease that can hit so quickly and so dramatically. The report in Pediatrics stops short of recommending all college students be vaccinated, but it does encourage increased awareness about the vaccine and its potential benefits.
“As an infectious diseases specialist, I would get my kids vaccinated,” says Patel.
Consult with your doctor about whether to vaccinate your child and make sure your teen is familiar with the symptoms on MenB:
- reddish or purple skin rash
- a sudden high fever
- neck stiffness
- joint pain
If an outbreak occurs at your child’s campus, they will need to be vaccinated to prevent possible infection. Anyone in regular, close contact with someone who has been infected with MenB will also need to receive antibiotics.