Sampling a friend’s drink or a quick kiss goodbye before you and your girlfriend or boyfriend head your separate ways to class - it’s innocent enough and done all the time on Oregon’s college campuses. Trouble is, these gestures of love and conviviality, although well-meant, are enough to spread things that are not very loving or convivial: diseases. Specifically, for students at the University of Oregon and residents of Eugene, the threat of meningitis lies heavy on this community.
Since the second week of January, three cases of meningococcal infection have been confirmed at the university. Soon after the death of a university freshman on January 17th, the investigation made preliminary links to a cause of death resulting from a fourth case of Meningococcemia, (conclusive test results still pending).
Meningitis: What, why, and how
Similar to other diseases, a bacterium known as Neisseria meningitidis lies at meningitis’ cause. Meningococcal diseases (of which meningitis is one) are bacterial infections of one of six strains spread through direct, close-contact exchange of respiratory and throat secretions for several hours during a seven day period. While there is no need to worry about infection through public exposure, as Neisseria meningitidis is not as readily transmitted as bacteria responsible for the flu, ample leisure time with best friends or partners on college campuses are likely transmission scenarios.
Meningitis, causing outward symptoms such as fever or headache, stiff neck, drowsiness and rash appear not so different from the flu. The internal situation however, is more severe. Inflammation of the protective membranes covering the brain and spinal cord is what is really happening.
Particular to the recent outbreak and accounting for around half of cases in Oregon, is the type B strain of the bacteria. The infections it causes can progress rapidly, and early symptoms are not easily recognized and are difficult to distinguish from other more common infections.
Adding to meningitis’ murky nature is that some people are carriers of the bacteria and show no symptoms. The disease is unpredictable, and no one really knows all the reasons why some carriers become sick while others do not.
To minimize risk, do not share personal items such as toothbrushes and water bottles. Wash hands regularly, and cough or sneeze into a shirtsleeve or tissue.
The best plan of action though? be prepared by getting vaccinated.
We’re not defenseless, but there is more we can do…
As adolescents, we should have received a 4-strain Meningococcal vaccine. Recent B strain specific vaccines have been designed to compliment the four strain shot we received years ago. Having both vaccines provides maximum protection. The two newly approved B strain vaccines are:
• Trumenba® is approved for use in people 10-25 years of age as a 3-dose series.
• Bexsero® is approved for use in people 10-25 years of age as a 2-dose series.
However, in an emergency, pharmacists may vaccinate, by state protocol, individuals 11 years of age and older with any approved vaccine. Other healthcare providers may vaccinate individuals 10 years of age and older, despite the recommended age range.
Where to go for vaccinations
The University of Oregon Health Center already has been vaccinating to its fullest capacity of approximately 80-100 students per day for several weeks.
March 2 will begin a four-day mass vaccination clinic at the Matthew Knight Arena. The clinic will be open from 10am to 8pm. Students must bring health insurance cards and identification to the walk-in clinic.
Alternatively, students can continue to go to the university health center or the following Safeway and Albertson’s pharmacies or six Walgreen’s locations in Lane County to receive a recommended Meningitis B vaccine.
Payment and insurance
Students who are insured by Aetna, the Oregon Health Plan/Medicaid and the GTFF-provided plan are covered for Meningitis B vaccines. For those with other providers, vaccines are not free, but U of O is trying hard to make these vaccines as accessible as possible. This week, U of O is working with insurers to facilitate direct billing and expects that to be set by the start of the large-scale clinic beginning March 2. Uninsured or underinsured students can receive assistance with signing up for state-supported plans while at the Mathew Knight Arena.
University and Lane County health officials are working to prevent additional cases. Prophylaxis has been offered to students who were potential contacts of the cases to date. Any person who may have had close contact with a case, as defined by Public Health Oregon's investigative guidelines, should discuss their concern for exposure with Lane County Public Health officials (541-682-4041) to determine the need for prophylactic antibiotics.