Public Health Message

December 14, 2011

An off-campus graduate student has died of meningococcal meningitis.

The university has confirmed a case of meningococcal meningitis that has resulted in the death of a graduate student. The disease, which is caused by the bacterium Neisseria meningitidis, is a rare but potentially fatal disease. While it is contagious, it requires close and prolonged contact with a person who has meningitis. George Washington has notified about 35 students, faculty and staff who may have been in close contact with the individual, who lived off-campus. The university is working closely with departments of health regarding exposure and prophylactic treatment. 

The university has advised these individuals to be screened by a health professional, and they will receive antibiotics as a precaution if needed, which will be available at the Student Health Service at no cost. There have been no other reported cases. This is the first reported case of meningococcal meningitis of a current student in recent memory. 

Isabel Goldenberg, director of GW’s Student Health Service, answered questions about this dangerous infection and how to take precautions.

Q: What is meningitis?
A: It’s an inflammation of the membranes surrounding the brain and spinal cord.

Q: What’s the difference between viral and bacterial meningitis?
A: Viral meningitis is more common than bacterial meningitis but is generally less severe. Viral meningitis is caused by a virus and bacterial meningitis is caused by bacteria such as Streptococcus or Neisseria meningitidis. Often the symptoms for viral and bacterial meningitis are the same initially, but bacterial meningitis rapidly progresses to a very severe disease. If left untreated, it can cause brain damage, an infection of the blood and even death.

Q: What are the symptoms of meningococcal meningitis?
A: Common symptoms are high fever, headache and stiff neck. Other symptoms include nausea, vomiting and sensitivity to light. These symptoms can develop over several hours or take one to two days to surface.

Q: How is it diagnosed?
A: Patients should consult their health provider as soon as possible if they have signs or symptoms of meningitis. Patients will be evaluated, and some of the necessary tests may be blood work, a spinal tap and appropriate cultures.

Q: Can bacterial meningitis be treated?
A: Yes, it can be treated with antibiotics. But treatment should be started as early as possible because the infection progresses very quickly.

Q: Is it contagious?
A: Yes. It’s spread mostly by person-to-person contact through the exchange of respiratory droplets such as coughing, sneezing or kissing. However, meningococcal meningitis is not as contagious as the flu. It requires close and prolonged contact with an infected person. For prophylactic treatment, close contact is defined as being within three feet of the index case for more than eight hours within the last 10 days.

Q: How common is meningococcal meningitis?
A: There are about 3,000 cases per year in the U.S. On college campuses, the incidence rate is higher with about 1.44 cases per 100,000 people. In 18- to 34-year-olds, more than 16 percent of people who become infected die.

Q: Are there vaccines for meningitis?
A: Yes, there are three vaccines available for meningococcal infection. All vaccines are safe and effective.

Q: Who should get the vaccine?
A: The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends the vaccine be given to all children ages 11-12. A booster should be given within five years, and a meningococcal meningitis vaccine is required to attend many universities, including GW. Students can receive the vaccine at the Student Health Service.