Meningitis: Who's At Risk

Bacterial meningitis is a potentially life-threatening infection caused by bacteria that infect the membranes around the brain and spinal cord.

Fortunately, it's very rare. But about 3,000 people each year get it, and it kills about three hundred. It can also lead to amputations and cause brain damage.

College freshmen living in dorms are at the highest risk for meningitis, and high school seniors are being urged to consider getting the meningitis vaccination before they head off to college. Many college health facilities offer the vaccine.

The Early Show medical correspondent Dr. Emily Senay explains new vaccination recommendations.

The recent approval of a newer and better bacterial meningitis vaccine has prompted government health officials to expand their immunization recommendations.

Now health officials suggest that children aged eleven and twelve in the United States get the shot, as well as teens entering high school and college freshmen living in dormitories.

The newer vaccine should be available next month. But it may be in limited supply until the manufacturer gets up to speed with production. Until then, the older vaccine is still available.

The newly-approved meningitis vaccine lasts about eight years, compared to the three-to-five year protection offered by the older vaccine. It also prevents people from unknowingly carrying and spreading the bacteria without getting sick. The newer vaccine protects against four of the most common strains of bacteria that typically cause meningitis.

How is meningitis spread?

It's a common bug and lives in nasal passages and throats, usually without causing any problems. Very close contact is usually necessary to spread the bacteria, like sneezing, coughing, kissing, or sharing eating utensils or glasses. It's more common in college dorms, and the military has used vaccination effectively to reduce the risk of meningitis in barracks for decades.

Symptoms of bacterial meningitis:

It can be a difficult disease to diagnose, because it's easy to confuse its symptoms with other illnesses.

High fever, headache, and stiff neck are common, as well as nausea, vomiting, discomfort looking into bright lights, confusion, and sleepiness.

These symptoms can develop over several hours, or they may take one or two days. It's important to seek medical attention if the symptoms worsen or ersist.