BY MERYL PHAIR ’21
George A. Corey, M.D., executive director of the UMass Amherst Health Services, declared an outbreak of meningitis B on the UMass Amherst campus on Nov. 28. Now the Mount Holyoke administration is urging students to get vaccinated against the disease.
“Following additional, extensive testing of the two student cases of meningococcal disease on campus,” Corey wrote in a statement released last Tuesday, “University Health Services (UHS), in concert with the Massachusetts Department of Public Health and the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), has determined that because the two cases originated from a single strain of genetically identical organisms, this meningococcal disease should be considered an outbreak.”
According to UMass Amherst, two unnamed students have been diagnosed with the disease, which is of a different strain than the regular meningitis vaccine that is required for all Massachusetts college students. The first student, who was diagnosed on Oct. 24, has been released from the hospital, while the second student, who was diagnosed on Nov. 12, remains in stable condition at the Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston. The two students do not know each other, and were not in close contact, which heightens concerns.
Meningitis is an inflammation of the protective membranes that cover the brain and spinal cord, and is caused by either a bacterial or viral infection. The disease strikes quickly and can be fatal within 24 hours. Effects range from kidney failure to coma and death. Among those who survive, approximately one in five live with permanent disabilities, such as brain damage, hearing loss, or limb amputations. This definition comes from the National Meningitis Association, the nation’s biggest source of information about the disease, which was founded in 2002 by five women who lost children to the disease.
Meningitis can be spread through coughing, sneezing, kissing, sharing beverages and living in tight quarters. How people spread the germs often depends on the type of bacteria. People can carry these bacteria in or on their bodies without being sick. These people are “carriers.” Most carriers never become sick, but can still spread the bacteria to others, according to the CDC. Symptoms, which can sometimes be mistaken for the flu, include severe headaches, stiff neck, vomiting, confusion and sometimes a rash.
Meningitis can be difficult to vaccinate against because there are multiple strains that can be contracted. The vaccine for meningitis A, C, W and Y covers all four strains and is mandated by the CDC in every state. The meningitis B strain, however, has a permissive recommendation, meaning doctors don’t have a say if a patient gets it or not. Many teens have not yet received the meningococcal serogroup B vaccine since it was just permissively recommended by the CDC in 2015. The meningitis B strain is consistently spreading on college campuses, according to the National Meningitis Association.
“Someone once described meningitis to me as a disease that’s in your neighbor’s backyard. It’s away from you, it’s not in immediate reach, but it’s there,” said Sorcha McCrohan ’21.
McCrohan lost her mother, Janet McCrohan, to the disease on June 6, 2010. McCrohan, who was only 11 years old at the time, made a promise to her mother that she would raise awareness for the disease so that Janet and those who contract meningococcal disease in the U.S. every year would not be forgotten. She started a Meningitis awareness club at her high school to help the cause and has been an outspoken advocate for the National Meningitis Association for the past four years.
All Mount Holyoke students who take classes at UMass have been urged by the administration to be vaccinated to help prevent the spread of the disease.
“Mount Holyoke College is following the recommendations made to UMass by Centers for Disease Control and Mass. Dept. of Public Health, and that is to reduce the risk of infection for students and the larger community,” said Karen Engell, director of Mount Holyoke College Health Services.
Vaccination clinics were held at the Pattie J. Groves Health Center on Dec. 1 and 4. Ninety students showed up to the first clinic, according to Engell. If students wish to be vaccinated who were unable to make those dates, “vaccines are available to students by appointment,” Engell said. Everyone’s health insurance is expected to cover this vaccination, since the situation is considered an outbreak.
“I got the vaccine because my Five College Irish language class meets at UMass and I decided it was better to be protected than potentially contract a dangerous strain of meningitis,” said Sarah McCool ’18.
At UMass, walk-in clinics have been set up in the Student Union building and nearly 1,500 students have already gotten the shot, according to a school announcement. Aside from the clinics, classes and other university activities are expected to proceed as usual.