By Ryan Mac
Despite the recent hospitalization of a La Casa Italiana resident for bacterial meningitis, cases of the disease on college campuses are rare.
As the Associated Press reported last month, flare-ups of the disease are at an all-time low. A survey of more than 200 college campuses, which represented a population of more than 2 million students, revealed there were 11 recorded cases of bacterial meningitis in the last academic year.
Yet, when the illness does strike, the results can be devastating. Three of the 11 students who contracted the disease in the last year died, and the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates that 10 percent of all bacterial meningitis cases prove fatal.
It’s a concern that prompted Dr. Ira Friedman, director of Vaden Health Center, to visit Casa Italiana on Monday night after a resident was hospitalized with the rare illness. The resident, a female senior, was sent to an undisclosed hospital on Sunday for a suspected case of bacterial meningitis.
School officials declined to comment on the current condition of the student, citing patient privacy laws.
At universities — especially those that guarantee four years of housing to undergraduates, like Stanford — high-volume living quarters and close contact between students can create auspicious conditions for disease transmission. Given bacterial meningitis’ deadly and fast-acting reputation, school officials left little to chance on Monday, arriving at Casa Italiana after dinner with prepared statements, antibiotics and a plethora of handouts.
Friedman said the hospitalized student is suspected to have a bacterial type of meningitis known as meningococcal disease. Bacterial forms of meningitis are more potent than viral and fungal types of the disease and should “always be considered a medical emergency,” according to the CDC.
Friedman: Disease Not Likely to Spread
Friedman, who has made similar visits to residences in the past for other health concerns, wrote in an e-mail to The Daily that his visit to 562 Mayfield Ave. was meant to “share information about the ill student’s suspected disease and to explain that close physical contact or intimate exposure increases the risk of catching the illness.”
On their Monday visit, Vaden officials gave Casa Italiana residents the option of taking preventative antibiotics. The Santa Clara County Public Health Department also contacted outside students who have are known to have been in close contact with the infected resident.
Despite the precautions, Friedman did not believe there was a high risk of transmission. In a study by the CDC, households that experienced a single case of bacterial meningitis only had a three to four percent likelihood of secondary cases among other residents.
Dr. Sara Cody, deputy health officer for Santa Clara County, reaffirmed Friedman’s statements on the relative difficulty of transmission, stating that college dorms only experience a slightly higher risk of disease spread. The bacteria, normally transmitted thorough direct contact of respiratory droplets and throat secretions, were not “not going to live on a surface or spoon or sofa,” she said.
“Spit and snot, that’s the bottom line,” Cody added.
Meningitis Vaccine Still Not Required
Some students arrive at Stanford already vaccinated against meningitis, although it is not a required immunization for incoming students. Many doctors and public health officials believe a vaccine is the easiest way to protect from a disease that can result in long-term disabilities, such as brain damage, loss of limbs and deafness.
“It’s not a very frequent disease, but when it happens it’s very, very devastating,” said Diane Peterson, associate director for immunization projects at the Immunization Action Coalition (IAC). The IAC works to limit the spread of infectious diseases by providing educational materials to doctors and the public on the effectiveness of immunization.
“There is no downside to being vaccinated, just an assurance that you won’t get this horrible disease,” she said.
Still, there are skeptics. Some oppose vaccinations in general for personal or religious reasons. Others have doubts about the bacterial meningitis vaccine in particular, citing the cost-effectiveness as a reason why a state or university should not require it. Among them is Friedman.
“I don’t think it would be a good policy to require the vaccine,” he said in an interview with The Daily in 2004. “A vaccine should be required only when its benefits far outweigh its costs, in dollars and otherwise. This is not the case for the meningococcal vaccine. That’s why public health authorities support an educational approach.”
In an e-mail to The Daily on Tuesday, Friedman did not completely backtrack on his earlier statement but did say that that Vaden “encourage[s] students to be vaccinated, as most are when they arrive here.”
Peterson echoed that sentiment.
“The vaccination [for bacterial meningitis] is one of the more pricey ones, but gosh, what’s the value of a life or an arm or a leg?” she asked.
A vaccine for meningococcal disease costs $120 at Vaden.
Lexi Peters ’11, a resident at Casa Italiana, said she had received a vaccination against bacterial meningitis many years ago and was relatively unconcerned with the spread of the disease in the house after the Vaden information session. She said that students were not worried about moving out, given that there was only one isolated case of infection.
Marie Oamek, manager of housing information and communication, gave no indication that students would be moved to new residences. The infected student may be given the option of “medically appropriate” private quarters if she returns, Oamek said.
In the meantime, Peters said residents have already tried to make light of the situation in a week where their house experienced a disease scare on Monday and a brief evacuation following a gas leak Tuesday morning.
“People are joking that there’s bad karma with Casa because no one wants to unnecessarily panic,” she said. “This is a serious and unfortunate event, but we’re just continuing with daily life as best as possible.”