Prevention: The best way to fight meningitis

Illustration by Tasha Tuvango, via Shutterstock

Recent cases of meningitis B on the campus of Santa Clara University have reinforced the threat of vaccine preventable illnesses and the importance of education and vaccination in the fight against meningitis B.

Meningitis is a dangerous bacterial infection that can cause neurological injury, loss of limbs and even death. When it strikes, it works fast. Because the initial symptoms of the illness can be mistaken as those of a cold or flu, it is often disregarded until it is too late. Even with appropriate treatment, 10 to 15 percent of cases still result in death. Although anyone can get meningitis, this disease spreads particularly quickly in close living quarters, making college students among the most susceptible.

It is critical that California college students and their families educate themselves about the dangers of Meningitis B.

BThe three students at Santa Clara University join other recent cases from UC San Diego, where a student died last year from meningococcal meningitis, and well as UC Santa Barbara, where an additional four students tested positive for the disease, with one having to have both feet amputated as a result.

Prevention is the best way to combat meningitis. There are now vaccines available that protect against all five strains of the disease.

It is critical that California college students and their families educate themselves about the dangers of Meningitis B and that they are fully informed about the importance of being fully immunized against meningococcal infection. There are now two immunizations available and required to fully protect against all strains of meningitis.

Although education and awareness are important, more must be done to help to deter the spread of meningitis. Widespread vaccination is absolutely critical. As is the case with most vaccine-preventable diseases, while individual Californians benefit from being immunized, the entire community will only realize the full benefits of vaccinations if a considerable group of people get inoculated against the disease. This is because the general immunity of a population to a disease is dependent upon the acquired immunity by a majority of the people. This concept is often referred to as “herd immunity.” In other words, the general health of California is reliant on everyone doing their part and getting vaccinated.

For its part, California requires that college students be educated about meningitis; however, the available existing materials do not contain information on Meningitis B, one of the five strains of this illness and the strain that recently hit Santa Clara University.  To ensure that education about all of the strands of meningitis is available, the Department of Public Health should reevaluate and update their current educational meningitis materials to include information about Meningitis B.

As part of my medical practice, I have witnessed the devastating impact that preventable diseases such as meningitis have had on my patients and their families. I have seen patients suffer neurologic and functional loss as a result of infectious diseases that could have easily have been prevented. It is imperative that all Californians take the necessary steps to prevent what are preventable diseases, educate and vaccinate ourselves and our children against these diseases, and help avoid these disastrous consequences.

Dr. Robert Bitonte is a physiatrist based in Los Angeles and president of the California Society of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation.

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