meningitis outbreakFrom February 17–20, Princeton University will be providing a second dose of the meningitis B vaccine to both students living in dormitories and those with specific medical conditions. The first dose of the vaccine, which was administered to over 90 percent of the university community from December 9–12, was in response to the recent on-campus serogroup B meningococcal disease outbreak, of which there have been eight cases since March 22, 2013.

As of now, the outbreak has been contained on the Princeton campus, with no reported cases having spread into the surrounding New Jersey communities. Here’s what you need to know in case that changes:

What is meningitis?

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), “meningitis is a disease caused by the inflammation of the protective membranes covering the brain and spinal cord,” and “may develop in response to a number of causes, usually bacteria or viruses.” Viral meningitis is generally more common and less serious, while bacterial is usually rare and can have serious results, including brain damage and death. There are numerous bacterial strains of meningitis, with the outbreak at Princeton University being caused by strain B.

How does it spread?

Meningitis can be spread from person to person through the exchange of saliva during close or lengthy contact, such as coughing, sneezing, and sharing food or drink. Most cases of the infection are transmitted between people living in close quarters, such as dormitories, boarding schools, day care facilities, or sleep-away camps.

Who can get meningitis?

Although anyone can contract meningitis, the disease occurs most frequently in children, teens, and young adults. The majority of viral cases appear in children 5 and under, while bacterial cases are most common in those 20 and under.

What are the symptoms?

The most common meningitis symptoms that may develop 1–10 days after exposure in those over the age of 2 include:

  • Body aches
  • Confusion or difficulty concentrating
  • Decrease in appetite
  • Lethargy
  • Seizures
  • Sensitivity to light
  • Severe headache
  • Skin rash
  • Stiff and painful neck (especially when trying to touch your chin to your chest)
  • Sudden high fever
  • Vomiting or nausea

Children may additionally experience flu-like symptoms, such as a cough or trouble breathing, while infants may have extreme irritability, bulging fontanelles, or jaundice. 

How do I prevent my child from contracting meningitis?

One of the best ways to prevent meningitis is by getting vaccinated. The CDC recommends that children receive their first meningococcal vaccination between the ages of 11 and 12, with a booster dose at 16, especially is they plan on attending college, boarding school, or camp. It is additionally suggested that kids who have specific medical conditions or are traveling to countries where meningitis is common get vaccinated between 9 months and 10 years of age. (Note: The vaccine provides protection against meningococcal bacteria strains A, C, Y, and W-135. With the exception of the vaccine being administered at Princeton University, there is no licensed vaccine for strain B in the United States.)

Practicing good hygiene can also prevent meningitis. Cover your mouth and nose when coughing or sneezing, clean your hands (especially before eating), avoid sharing utensils or water bottles, eat healthy, and get plenty of rest. The meningitis bacteria cannot survive outside the body for long and, therefore, does not spread through casual contact.

If you or your child are exhibiting symptoms of meningitis, please seek medical attention immediately.