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Meningitis On Campus: A Real Pain In The Neck

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Dr. Louis Hanson talks with Teera Wilkins about Meningitis.  Dr. Hanson is the Medical Director at Vanderbilt Student Health. Listen to hear why it is important for students living on campus to have the Meningitis vaccine before coming to school.

Begin Transcript

Teera Wilkins:          Welcome to this edition of the Vanderbilt University Health and Wellness Wellcast.  I am Teera Wilkins with Occupational Health Clinic. Today, I have Dr. Louise Hanson, Medical Director of Student Health here to give us some information on meningitis.   Hi Dr. Hanson.

Dr. Louise Hanson:    Hello.

Teera Wilkins:          What is meningitis?  Why is it a special concern on a college campus?

Dr. Louise Hanson:    Meningitis is an infection that causes infection and inflammation in the surface of the brain and in the lining that surrounds the spinal column, so it causes inflammation in the spinal fluid that  base the brain and the spinal cord.  The symptoms are fever, stiff neck, sensitivity to light, and even altered mental status, which can be the presenting symptoms and that can be caused by bacteria, by the variety of different fungal infections, or variety of viruses.  So, it is a concern on a college campus, especially the bacterial form, because students live in such close quarters on the college campus, and therefore, any disease can be easily transmitted from one person to another.

Teera Wilkins:          Is meningitis contagious?

Dr. Louise Hanson:    Most are.  So, some types of meningitis, especially fungal types, are caused typically by other situations but viral which we see relatively commonly on our college campus and all college campuses and bacterial which is the serious one that we see rarely but we do see on rare occasion, those are contagious in the same way a typical cold is contagious or the flu is spread by body fluids or oral secretions, and so, in the same way, you can catch a cold by drinking a beverage after somebody who is ill.  You can catch meningitis that way too by close intimate contact and sharing food and drink, and again, because our students live in residence halls for the most part, they are susceptible because they are living in such close quarters sharing personnel hygiene items, sharing bathrooms, and sharing sleeping space.

Teera Wilkins:          Is there a way to cure meningitis?

Dr. Louise Hanson:    Bacterial meningitis, the one that we are most fearful of because it can be life threatening is the bacterial meningitis caused by Neisseria meningitidis and that it can be a fatal illness and that is why we are so vigilant about detecting it early so we can treat it, so it requires antibiotics to be treated in the hospital for high-dose IV antibiotics.  Viral meningitis which we do see typically several times in a given year can be caused by any virus that we see that can also cause colds, can cause mono, and can also cause some of that inflammation in the spinal fluid, and the treatment for those patients is typically bed rest, sometimes IV fluids, and time, but the one we are most concerned about is bacterial because it requires in order to be life saving antibiotic treatment.

Teera Wilkins:          I know there is a vaccine for meningitis.  Is it recommended for everybody?

Dr. Louise Hanson:    There is an FDA-approved meningococcal vaccine.  There are two types of vaccines for that type of meningitis.  There is one that we give our young children or infants that protects against certain types of infections in early childhood.  There is another vaccine that is intended for older children and for adolescents that prevents the strains of meningococcal meningitis that we see in older adolescents and young adults.  It is only recommended for those students who are living on a residential campus in the residence halls.  This is not an illness that spreads from casual contact in a classroom, and so for graduate student and for faculty and staff who may interact very closely with undergraduate students and even our health care professionals, they do not need the vaccine.  It is only for those faculty and staff who are living in the residence halls with these students, for example, physicians in the emergency department, physicians in our student health center, our nurses, we are not vaccinated against meningococcal disease because we are not living there.  For viral and fungal types of meningitis, there is no vaccine.

Teera Wilkins:          Is the vaccine effective in reducing the chance of getting meningitis?

Dr. Louise Hanson:    Yes.  It is effective against most of the strains that do cause disease in young adults who live on college campuses.  The vaccine is not 100% effective.  It is effective against about 70% to 80% of the strains that are out there, and I should mention that it is required by state law here in Tennessee and in most states that college students receive this vaccine before coming to college.

Teera Wilkins:          There have been a lot of media reports lately about the outbreak in Princeton University.  Can you explain to us why that was such a big deal?

Dr. Louise Hanson:    Thankfully for all of us who work on college campuses in general, because this is such a serious illness, we are so worried about this at all times, but there are usually between 150 to sometimes as many as 200 cases a year in the United States in college students who live on college campuses.  So, because the vaccine is not perfect, it does not cover every single strain of meningococcal disease.  Princeton was faced with a situation, a very unusual situation this fall, actually dating back to last spring where a total to this date that I am aware of eight cases of meningococcal disease of a strain that is not covered in US vaccine.  Because of the concern about this outbreak and because of the serious nature of this illness, the university and New Jersey Public Health officials went ahead and asked for permission to import a vaccine from Canada that has been used widely in Canada and in other parts of the world and is considered a safe vaccine.  They received permission from the food and drug administration to import it for use in their community.

Teera Wilkins:          Thank you for your time and I definitely appreciate sitting down and talking to you about this serious matter.

Dr. Louise Hanson:    You are welcome.

Teera Wilkins:          Thanks for listening.  Please feel free to leave us any comments on this Wellcast on the form at the bottom of this page.  If you have any story suggestions, please email us at or you can use the “Contact Us” page on our website at

— end of recording  —

Posted on Friday, January 3, 2014 in Occupational Health Clinic, Wellcasts and tagged ,


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