Meningitis: Should I get the vaccine?

Originally Published: October 29, 1999 - Last Updated / Reviewed On: March 7, 2014
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(1)
Dear Alice,

I'm a CU student and I've heard in the media that meningitis vaccine shots are recommended. How do I get more information and a shot?

(2)
Dear Alice,

As a parent of a Columbia College freshman this fall, I was concerned about the increasing publicity that Meningitis has received recently over the networks. Since the population most likely to be infected includes young adults living in close quarters, do you recommend vaccination and is it available at Health Services on the Morningside Heights campus?

A concerned Parent

Dear CU Student and A concerned Parent,

Yes, about once a year meningitis and its vaccine receive quite a bit of media attention. An in-depth discussion about the workings of this illness, one's risk of contracting it, and data on the effectiveness of the vaccine are very important when making a decision about whether or not to be vaccinated. Relying solely on media reports — sometimes full of incomplete and incorrect information — won't make us well-informed consumers about this or other serious health matters. With that being said, you’re right, A concerned Parent, college students living in dormitories face an increased risk of meningitis. Because of this, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommend that first year college students living in dormitories be immunized to reduce disease risk. Still, resources at the end of this answer are provided to assist you in making a fully informed decision.

Meningitis is the name given to any process that causes an inflammation of the outer lining of the brain — some viruses, medical conditions, and bacteria can lead to this ailment. Most discussions in the media refer only to one type of meningitis: that caused by a specific bacterium named Neisseria meningitidis. There is, in fact, a vaccine that protects against the five most common strains of this bacterium. In the United States, meningitis infections from this bacterium are rare and occur mainly in infants and young children. While diseases such as Hepatitis B are much more prevalent, meningitis infections and deaths do occur in some young adults and college students each year.

Those who contract meningitis, or have some of the following symptoms, need medical attention as soon as possible because treatment with antibiotics is most effective during the early stages of the disease. The signs of meningococcal meningitis, which can resemble flu symptoms, include:

  • High fever,
  • Severe headache,
  • Stiffness of the neck,
  • Nausea,
  • Vomiting,
  • Rashes,
  • Fatigue,
  • Drowsiness, and/or
  • Confusion.

Among college-aged adults in this country studies confirm that meningococcal meningitis is in fact a rare event. However, as mentioned earlier, of those few individuals who do get the infection, there's an increased risk associated with those who live in residence halls. The CDC recommends these folks be immunized to reduce disease risk. As with all medications and vaccines, there is the potential for adverse side effects, which can include slight pain and swelling at the injection site and a mild fever. Severe, life-threatening reactions are extremely rare.

New York State requires that all students certify their decision about whether or not to be immunized. That is, students are not required to have the vaccine, but they are required to make an informed decision and register it with their college or university. Columbia students should certify their meningitis vaccination decision online as soon as possible; definitely before classes begin. After this information gathering process, if you decide you want to have the vaccine, Columbia Health has it available to Columbia students for a minimal charge. You can make an appointment by calling 212-854-7426 or log into Open Communicator. CUMC students should call the Student Health Service at 212-305-3400 for more information.

Making a decision about immunizations is one component in taking care of your health. What else can be done for a college-aged family member? Whether or not one is vaccinated, maintaining optimal health, by eating well, having plenty of quality sleep, managing stress levels, and exercising regularly are key components to staying healthy. Additional prevention specifics beyond the vaccination can also be found in our general meningitis Q&A.

For even more information, you may want to check out the following web sites:

CDC's Meningococcal Disease page

American College Health Association's Meningitis page

Alice