Rare meningitis outbreak spreads

    A fourth student at the University of Pennsylvania is sick with a suspected case of meningitis. The four cases have been discovered just this year. While an outbreak like this is extremely rare, the bug that causes meningitis is common.

    A fourth student at the University of Pennsylvania is sick with a suspected case of meningitis. The four cases have been discovered just this year. While an outbreak like this is extremely rare, the bug that causes meningitis is common.

    Meningitis is a serious medical condition in which membranes around the brain and spinal cord are inflamed. It affects only about 0.01% of Americans each year. But Doctor Thomas Fekete says meningitis bugs are everywhere.

    Fekete: In fact, at any given time in the winter, probably between 15 and 20% of us have this bacteria in our throats.

    Fekete is the Infectious Disease chief at Temple University Hospital. He says most of the time the bacteria hang out without causing much harm. But in cases like the Penn outbreak, a rare and dangerous strain sneaks past our immune systems and is not covered by vaccines. Esther Chernak is a doctor at the Philadelphia Department of Public Health.

    Chernak:
    Ordinarily the best and most effective control measure we have to control outbreaks of meningitis is to use the vaccine. Unfortunately we don’t have that option in this situation, so I think there are fewer control measures for us to employ.

    Chernak says meningitis is so difficult to prevent from spreading because most people who transmit the bacteria are asymptomatic. But she says the meningitis outbreak is not a huge threat to the region.

    Chernak: It’s still a relatively rare event in the population. And what we’re seeing is an outbreak in a much smaller population that is at high risk.

    College students are more prone to contract the bacteria that causes meningitis because of their close living quarters. Penn gave antibiotics to thousands of students as a preventive measure, but Feketa says there is little to protect people long term against rare strains.

    More information: Learn more about meningitis on the CDC’s Meningitis Topic page.

    Listen to the radio report:

    [audio:sci20090307meningitis.mp3]

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