PULLMAN – Health officials at WSU Pullman are encouraging students – particularly freshmen and others living in dense residential housing – to get meningitis shots or update vaccinations more than two years old.
Although there are no reported cases of meningococcal infection at WSU, the recommendation comes in the wake of the hospitalization in early December of a 19-year-old student. He subsequently was diagnosed with meningitis due to Neisseria meningitidis, also known as the meningococcus bacteria. He has been released from the hospital and is completing medical care at home.
Dr. Bruce Wright, executive director of WSU Health & Wellness Services (HWS), said it appears this case of meningococcal meningitis was preceded in the fall by a case of meningococcal pneumonia of the same meningococcus serotype.
“The first case, which occurred back in September, was a bit unusual in that it was a case of acute pneumonia, not meningitis,” said Wright. “But blood cultures revealed the presence of Neisseria meningitidis serotype Y about two weeks after the pneumonia patient was released from the hospital.
“What connected these two cases was that the meningococcus serotype identified in the pneumonia case was subsequently identified as the same serotype involved in the more recent meningitis case.”
While this doesn`t necessarily suggest a direct connection between the two prior cases, Wright said it does suggest the bacteria persists within the campus community.
Another similarity between the two cases, and a cause for concern for WSU health officials, Wright said, is that both students had received the meningitis vaccine, Menactra, three years before becoming infected.
“Unfortunately, all meningitis vaccinations tend to lose their effectiveness over time,” he said. “Our concern is that students who received the vaccine more than two years ago may assume it remains effective.
“But our experience suggests – and county health officials recommend – that because we have already had two cases of meningococcal illness, students vaccinated more than two years ago should get a booster vaccination, particularly if they are living in close quarters with others.”
Meningococcal meningitis is not highly contagious, Wright said. The bacterium is transferred primarily through the exchange of saliva, so typically it is spread among housemates or family members who have shared eating, drinking or smoking materials. It also can be transferred to those who have had sexual contact with an affected individual within 10 days of that person being diagnosed with the illness.
Symptoms of meningococcemia, or blood infection, include high fever, rash, nausea, vomiting and joint pains. Symptoms of meningitis include severe headaches, stiff neck, nausea, vomiting, rash, lethargy and high fever. Both conditions may resemble the flu.
Wright said meningitis is the infectious inflammation of the tissues that cover the brain and spinal cord. Up to 10 percent of the population normally carries the bacterium that causes the disease in their nose and mouth without showing any disease symptoms.
Only rarely does the bacterium penetrate to the area of the brain to cause meningitis. This is more likely to happen when people’s immune systems are weakened because of factors like sleep deprivation or other illnesses, he said.
Meningitis vaccine is available to WSU students through their individual private health care providers, the public health department, and HWS.