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May 25, 1999

Students Living on Campus Get Meningitis More Often

A study that looked at how often Maryland college students get meningococcal invasive infection (meningitis) as compared to the general population has found that students who live on-campus are three times more likely to get infected than those who live off-campus. Meningococcal infection causes severe headache, loss of appetite, and neck rigidity. It can be fatal. Among undergraduates at four-year institutions, the rate of infection for those living on campus was 3.24 per 100,000 people as compared to .96 for off-campus students. The rate for the general population 18-22 years old was 1.44 per 100,000. The study appears in the May 26, 1999 issue of the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA).

Meningococcal infection outbreaks have increased in the past few years. Most of the outbreaks were caused by serogroup C N. meningitis, for which there is an available vaccine. Lead author Lee H. Harrison, MD, adjunct associate professor, International Health, Johns Hopkins School of Public Health, said, "Over 80 percent of the cases we analyzed could potentially have been prevented with the vaccine, including three of the four fatal cases." The American College Health Association (ACHA) recommends that college students consider meningococcal immunization.

The study's primary purpose was to compare the rate of infection among college students as compared to the general population of the same age. The study showed a similar incidence of meningococcal infection in both groups. In Maryland, the annual incidence among undergraduates in four-year colleges was 1.74 per 100,000 (for those living both on and off-campus) as compared to 1.44 per 100,000 for those 18 to 22 years old. The rate of infection of college students generally was lower than in children 17-years-old, the vast majority of whom were high school students.

Only 6% of the Maryland cases of meningococcal infection occurred in college students. The researchers looked at 228 meningococcal cases of all ages from January of 1992 to December of 1997. Of these 228 people, the rate of infection was highest in children under five years old. Sixty-seven of those infected were 16-30 years old, with a spike among 17-year-olds. The study looked closely at the 14 cases in Maryland college students. Dr. Harrison said that the study was limited by the small numbers of cases and encouraged further, more extensive studies not only among college students but also among high school children.

Funding for this study came from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), Pasteur Merieux Connaught, and the State of Maryland.

Public Affairs Media Contacts for the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health: Tim Parsons or Kenna Brigham @ 410-955-6878 or paffairs@jhsph.edu.