A 19-year-old female University Park student has been hospitalized with meningococcal disease, according to a press release issued by Penn State News.
According to the release, all known contacts of the student have already been notified and treated with the antibiotic prophylaxis.
Penn State spokeswoman Lisa Powers said the student is not on campus and that Penn State is not aware of anyone else displaying symptoms of the disease. University Health Services was notified of the infected student by the Pennsylvania Department of Health, according to the release.
Meningococcal disease, also known as cerebrospinal meningitis, is an invasive infection that develops and spreads rapidly. Symptoms range from fever and rashes to nausea and vomiting to lack of energy and confusion. It is spread through close contact and exchange of saliva with an infected individual, and it's not commonly transferred from casual interaction.
Lynn Bozoff, President of the National Meningitis Association, said that during the fall and early winter there seem to be more cases of meningococcal disease, but people are able to catch it any time of the year. Bozoff lost her son approximately 18 years ago to meningitis.
“Adolescents and young adults are at an increased risk for [the disease], so I think it’s really important to know the symptoms. The problem is that aside from the rash many of those symptoms sound like the flu or a virus, and it’s very difficult to diagnose meningococcal disease because of this. If any of the symptoms come on suddenly or are unusually severe, the person must seek medical attention immediately.”
Bozoff said that misdiagnosis is common when it comes to meningococcal disease, as was the case with her own son. There are five main serogroups, or distinct variations, of meningococcal disease - serogroups A, C, Y and W are protected in one vaccine, and a serogroup B is in a separate vaccine, Bozoff said.
“The serogroup B vaccine was licensed about a year and a half ago by the Federal Drug Administration,” Bozoff said. “Serogroup B is the [one] responsible for all the college outbreaks in the past few years. It’s a new vaccine that is recommended by the Centers for Disease Control, but it’s not as strong of a recommendation as the other vaccine. Because of this, the majority of people don’t even know that it’s out there and that they need to get vaccinated.”
Casey Mahlon, who graduated from Penn State Behrend in 2013, is a survivor of serogroup B meningitis. Mahlon said she contracted the disease her senior year of high school and was initially misdiagnosed with a viral infection as well.
“I had a fever and I started developing a rash so my mom drove me to the emergency room where I was misdiagnosed,” Mahlon said. “After I went home, I woke up the next morning and I was screaming in excruciating pain with the worst headache you could ever imagine. I was taken back to the doctor, given painkillers and then I passed out for five days. My family didn’t know for those five days if I was going to make it.”
Mahlon said the recovery process was extremely difficult as the disease left her with long-term consequences like scarring on the brain, difficulty learning, medicinal complications, temporary face paralysis and a loss of opportunities due to her recovery time. She said she still takes medications for it today.
“My heart really goes out to the student hospitalized and her family and friends because no matter what the outcome is, it’s going to be a big change,” Mahlon said. “It’s important for students to make sure they’re up to date on their vaccines and to be aware that because vaccination can’t prevent every case, they need to know the symptoms so they can recognize them and get help.”
Powers, Mahlon and Bozoff all urge students to get vaccinated if they had not been already.
“Students should heed the suggestion to obtain a vaccine. Students can get the meningococcal vaccines at University Health Services by scheduling an appointment online,” Powers said.
Bozoff said that if she had known about the vaccine for meningitis, her son would be alive today.
“There’s no science that’s proven that vaccines are not safe,” Bozoff said. “I would think that parents and students would want to be as protected as possible. No parent wants to be me, a parent who has lost a child, when there’s something so safe and effective that can protect your child’s life. To me, it’s a no brainer. Get vaccinated and protect yourself.”
Although UHS could not be reached for immediate comment, according to the release, no further actions are recommended as UHS personnel are continuing to work with the Pennsylvania Department of Health on the situation.
“Any time there’s a case of meningococcal disease in a college environment, everyone needs to take notice,” Bozoff said. “Vaccination is really the only way to protect yourself, but students can take common sense measures as well. [Sharing] drinks, smoking and drinking can all lower your immunity.”