Health Talk: Meningococcal bacteria

Perhaps one of the most annoying experiences of college preparation is the long list of vaccines that students have to receive. Each vaccine translates into a long wait in the midst of coughing and sneezing people, followed by a huge needle, searing pain, and that sore arm for the next day or so.

Still, injections are worth the pain, and students should be thankful they have to take them.Vaccines against meningococcal disease are on the top of the list of vaccines required for college students, and for good reason.

Meningococcal disease primarily affects young children and adults between the ages of 15 and 20, and has been considered one of the biggest threats on college campuses.
According to the American College Health Association, around 100 to 125 cases of meningococcal disease occur on college campuses each year, and five to 15 of those cases are fatal.
Meningococcal disease is often caused by the bacteria Neisseria meningitidis (commonly known as the meningococcal bacteria) and can take two forms: meningococcal meningitis and meningococcal septicaemia.

Meningococcal meningitis is perhaps the most notorious form of the disease. However, the lesser-known form of the disease, meningococcal septicaemia, is the real killer.

Although meningitis can cause permanent brain damage, less than 5 percent people who contract it die. Septicaemia, on the other hand, has a higher fatality rate at around 20 percent.
It is surprising to see such contrasting effects due to an infection by the same bacteria. What is even more surprising is that these bacteria usually reside in the nose and throat of healthy individuals without ever harming them.

Our body’s immune system has ways of keeping these bacteria in check and not letting them spread into the bloodstream. However, the bacteria sometimes manage to trick the immune system and come out of the nose and throat into the bloodstream. From the bloodstream, the bacteria follow two different routes.

The bacteria may cross over from the bloodstream into the membranes (called the meninges) covering the brain, causing an infection of the meninges — hence the name “meningitis.”
The bacteria then infect the fluid surrounding the meninges and travel to the spinal cord through this fluid. Bacterial toxins cause the inflammation of the meninges. This inflammation puts pressure on the nerves in the brain and spinal cord, giving rise to symptoms such as a stiff neck, headache, and drowsiness.

If not treated early on, meningitis proceeds to its final stage in which the person may go into a coma.

On the contrary, septicaemia is caused if the bacteria do not move out of the bloodstream. When the bacteria remain and multiply in the bloodstream, they release toxins. The toxins harm the body in a number of ways. They attract the immune system, thus preventing it from attacking the real cause of the problem, the meningococcal bacteria.

They then act on the heart, disrupting its ability to pump blood. Last, they puncture the walls of the blood vessels, which causes the blood to leak out.

The result is a large-scale hemorrhage throughout the body, which affects blood flow to vital organs, causing the organs to malfunction. Unless the symptoms are recognized quickly, a person is not left with much time to live.

One of the main reasons why septicaemia is so deadly is that it spreads very rapidly. Meningitis does not spread that quickly and that makes it slightly less harmful.

While septicaemia is lethal, it is also rare. Antibiotic treatment early on usually helps fight the disease. However, recent information regarding these antibiotics is slightly disturbing. Health officials in Minnesota and North Dakota have reported three cases in which the commonly used antibiotic ciprofloxacin was ineffective.

Drug-resistant strains of the bacteria point to an overdose of the antibiotic. Although there are other antibiotics that can be used, the drug-resistant strains suggest a scary future for the disease. Therefore, the best way for people to protect themselves is through vaccination.

The meningococcal bacteria are found in the respiratory tracts and saliva of a carrier, which means they can be spread through coughing, sneezing, or personal items like coffee cups.
Vaccination is the smart thing to do, but there are sound reasons for why it is so adamantly targeted to college students.

College students should be especially careful, as avoiding direct contact with people who are sneezing or coughing is virtually impossible in a dorm.

Sharing personal items like lip-gloss and coffee cups is also a large part of college life. Campus lifestyle makes college students a high-risk group for meningococcal disease. Two vaccines are commonly prescribed for college students. Menomune has been approved by the FDA and has been available since 1981, and a relatively new vaccine called MenactraT was approved in 2005.

Both of these vaccines are capable of preventing infection from four strains of the bacteria, namely A, C, Y and W-135. A fifth strain, B, does not have a vaccine as of yet.

However, since C and W-135 are the most common strains of the bacteria, the vaccines are helpful in most situations. In fact, the vaccines are the only means of prevention.

A glance at the big picture reveals that vaccines are more than just pain-inflicting needles ready to make their way into students.