Posted by: mkirschmd | July 4, 2009

Do I Need Meningitis Vaccine? Learn Your Lesson!

180px-University_of_Sydney_Main_Quadrangle[1]Earlier this year, 2 Ohio University students learned something that was definitely not on their college curriculum.  Both of them contracted bacterial meningitis, a potentially deadly infection that can kill a strong man in just a few hours.  Fortunately, these students recovered.  One of them had received the meningitis vaccine, which proves that no travel vaccine is infallible.  Many U.S. states require this vaccination for entering college students, although Ohio has no such requirement.  The Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) advises vaccination for children between 11-18 years of age and for college students who reside in dormitories.

Meningitis is also a concern for international travelers.   This infection occurs worldwide, but the highest risk occurs in the ‘meningitis belt’ in Africa from Mali to Ethiopia.  

Meningitis is a deadly disease.  It spreads after prolonged or close contact with an infected individual, not from casual encounters.  Treatment is often delayed as the symptoms of meningitis – fever, headache, nausea and vomiting – are mistaken for a simple viral infection.  Two symptoms that are typical of meningitis are a stiff neck and avoidance of bright lights, although meningitis patients may not have these symptoms.  Prompt suspicion of the disease and early treatment can be literally lifesaving.  I remember as a medical student being shown a photograph of the characteristic ‘meningitis rash’ and told never to forget it.  I never did. 

Fortunately, there is a meningitis vaccine available, which should be administered at least 10 days before departure to regions with meningitis risk, although even last minute travelers should be vaccinated.   Your travel doctor will be up-to-date on the latest developments in worldwide meningitis infection patterns.  Your particular itinerary and season of travel will be critical to determine if this vaccine is necessary.  In addition to meningitis vaccine, travelers may require many other important travel vaccinations before departure.  

The 2 Ohio students mentioned at the beginning of this posting learned a lot about meningitis.  We prefer that you don’t use their lesson plan for learning about this disease.

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