Parents have plenty to worry about when their kids go to school or away at camp, and illness is a major concern. Colds, flu, ear infections and strep throat are among the many potential illnesses shared by youngsters in close proximity. However, these infections are rarely life-threatening. Meningitis, on the other hand, is a potentially dangerous communicable disease that can spread through classrooms or dormitories.

Meningitis, inflammation of the tissue surrounding the brain and spinal cord, can be caused by a virus or bacteria. Fungal meningitis, though less common than the viral or bacterial form of the disease, recently gained national attention when people were infected by tainted steroid injections. Meningococcus bacteria, which causes the most dangerous form of meningitis, also causes septicemia, a serious blood infection. Symptoms often appear mild and flu-like at first, but the infection can progress quickly, causing death within hours. Those who survive may suffer brain damage or permanent hearing loss.

Fortunately, a vaccine exists to protect against meningococcal infection, and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends it for all children between 11 and 18 years old. Ideally, the vaccine is given at age 11 or 12 with a booster dose at age 16.

“The biggest concern has been for beginning college freshmen,” says Dr. Edwin Anderson, a researcher at the Saint Louis University Center for Vaccine Development and professor of internal medicine. “Some schools require that entering freshmen who’ll be living in the dorm receive the meningococcal vaccine, and I think this is the first time a lot of parents really think about it.” Some studies have shown that the highest rates of meningococcal disease in the U.S. are in college freshmen, he adds.

In adults, the most common germ responsible for severe meningitis, often resulting in death, is a bacteria called Neisseria Meningitidis, notes Dr. Joseph Hilgeman of Mercy Clinic Internal Medicine in Des Peres. “The vaccine to prevent meningococcal meningitis from this bacteria will only protect against infections with Neisseria Meningitidis,” he says. “Luckily, most viral meningitis are much less severe and do not result in death, unlike an infection with Neisseria Meningitidis, which, when it causes meningitis, is usually occurring in young, otherwise healthy individuals.”

Because meningococcal disease can become life-threatening so quickly, fast diagnosis and treatment is important. Also, people who have had contact with someone diagnosed with the disease should be treated with antibiotics, even if symptoms are not present.

“If you develop a high fever and have trouble touching your chin to your chest due to neck pain, especially if you also have a rash, see a doctor immediately,” Hilgeman advises. “This is a preventable disease.”

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