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Meningitis 101

College freshmen should be vaccinated against this potential killer

FRIDAY, Sept. 6, 2002 (HealthDayNews) -- Like all students heading to college for the first time, John Kach had a daunting "to do" list.

He'd ploughed through most of it before he left his New York state home for Salve Regina University in Rhode Island.

There was one crucial exception: His family doctor was out of the vaccine recommended to help prevent bacterial meningitis, an inflammation of the lining that surrounds the brain and spinal cord that can be fatal.

So his mother, Paige, urged him to get the shot once he arrived on campus.

But, getting the vaccine fell through the cracks of his hectic schedule. Then, in the spring, he fell ill and couldn't stop vomiting. He thought it was a bad case of the flu, but his girlfriend insisted he go to a hospital, worried that all the vomiting had left him dehydrated.

Doctors soon discovered that John had meningococcal meningitis, a form of meningitis caused by bacteria. Five different known strains can cause bacterial meningitis.

"The doctor called us in and said, 'Are you religious?'" his mother remembers. "He received last rites twice."

For six weeks, John lingered in a drug-induced coma, his kidneys shut down, as his body fought the infection. Miraculously, he survived. However, gangrene, a common complication, made amputation inevitable. John lost his right leg below the knee, all the toes on his left foot and most of his fingers.

He was fitted with a leg prosthesis. That was two years ago. And now? "I'm back pretty much doing everything I used to," he says.

However, he's added one personal crusade to his schedule: Helping spread the word about the value of the vaccine through a coalition called "Moms on Meningitis." Working with the Meningitis Foundation of America, the group includes three mothers whose college-age children came down with bacterial meningitis and died.

"I don't want what happened to me to happen to someone else. Or to have what happened to my family happen to someone else. I want to get the word out about the vaccine," says John, who joined his mother for a recent media tour designed to educate people about the vaccine.

Given in a single injection, the vaccine protects against some but not all forms of meningitis, which can be caused by either a bacterium or a virus, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Viral is more common but not as serious as bacterial meningitis, which is far more dangerous and deadly. Bacterial meningitis can attack the brain or spinal cord, or invade the blood, leading to hearing loss, a loss of limbs, mental retardation, even death.

Anyone can get the disease, which is spread by coughing, sneezing, kissing, even sharing drinking glasses. However, college freshmen living in dormitories who often get little sleep and have lowered immunity are more susceptible, the CDC says. The agency recommends that the vaccine, which costs about $70, be made easily available to college freshmen and others at risk.

According to the Meningitis Foundation of America, there are about 17,500 cases of bacterial meningitis in the United States each year.

Meningococcal meningitis strikes about 3,000 Americans annually, killing 300 of them. About 100 to 125 cases occur on college campuses each year, killing up to 15 students annually.

However, the vaccine isn't foolproof.

"It's good, but not great," says Dr. Denise Sur, a family practice physician and member of the family practice residency faculty at Santa Monica-UCLA Medical Center. It protects against only four of the five known serogroups, or types, of bacteria that cause the disease. Like most vaccines, it's not entirely effective even against the serogroups it does combat, she says.

That's why college students should know they can still get meningitis even if they have been vaccinated, Sur says. They should know the typical symptoms -- fever of 101 degrees or greater, a stiff neck, a headache, vomiting and a purple rash.

If these symptoms occur, immediate medical attention is crucial, she says, so that treatment, including antibiotics, can be started.

What To Do

For answers to frequently asked questions about meningitis, visit the Meningitis Foundation of America. For the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's recommendation on the vaccine, click here. Many colleges are holding fall vaccination days. For a partial list of the schools, click here.

SOURCES: John and Paige Kach, Carmel, N.Y.; Denise Sur, M.D., faculty member, family practice residency faculty, Santa Monica-UCLA Medical Center, Santa Monica, Calif.
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