Meningitis outbreaks are ongoing on both coasts, affecting students at Princeton University and the University of California-Santa Barbara. So far, eight people have been infected at Princeton and four at Santa Barbara.
The two outbreaks are caused by the same type B strain of bacteria, but appear unrelated.
Meningitis vaccines in the U.S. do not offer protection against type B. Princeton University has obtained permission to use a foreign vaccine, licensed in Europe and Australia, which does protect against type B. The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) is advising all undergraduate students at Princeton, as well as graduate students who live on campus, to get vaccinated.
Princeton's outbreak began in March. The first five cases occurred before the end of June. A new case was diagnosed in October and two more in November, with the latest on November 20. All the affected students have recovered or are recovering.
The disease is not spread by casual contact. To be infected you must be in close contact with the person’s saliva or other respiratory secretions.
The four cases at Santa Barbara all appeared in November. Three have been confirmed to be caused by type B, while information is not yet available on the fourth case. Though caused by type B, there are genetic differences between the bacteria responsible for the Princeton and Santa Barbara cases, so the two outbreaks do not appear to be related.
Meningitis inflames the linings of the spinal cord and brain. Early symptoms can resemble those of the flu. These may include sudden fever, headache, neck stiffness, vomiting and sensitivity to light. A stiff neck is often an indication that something more serious is occurring. Students with these symptoms are urged to seek immediate medical attention.
The bacteria that cause meningitis can live in the throat for weeks or even months, but cannot live outside of the body for very long. The disease is not spread by casual contact, or even being in the same room as someone who is sick or just carrying the disease. And you can't contract it by handling items that the infected person may have touched.
To be infected you must be in close contact with the person’s saliva or other respiratory secretions. This is most likely to occur when sharing other people's food or drink, cups, water bottles, eating utensils, smoking equipment or kissing.
UCSB sent a letter to its fraternities and sororities, most of which are based off campus, asking them to refrain from large social gatherings where cups might be exchanged.
About 10-15% of people who fall ill with bacterial meningitis die from it. And many others suffer long lasting effects from the disease. One of the Santa Barbara students who came down with the disease had to have both lower legs amputated.
More than 500 students at UCSB who were identified as close contacts of the affected students have received preventive antibiotics, county health officials said. This week, additional individuals who may have been exposed to the bacteria causing the meningococcal disease are being directed to take antibiotics.
Having the entire student body take antibiotics is not an effective strategy to treat the outbreak. Treating people with antibiotics unnecessarily carries many risks and may foster antibiotic resistance.
Even with the winter holidays fast approaching, the CDC does not recommend that students, staff, or faculty take antibiotics based on concern for exposing others back home. Prior outbreaks at other universities show that the risk of the disease spreading to the community or to family members is very low.
You can find updated information on the current meningitis outbreaks on the CDC's website.