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Health / Safety

Meningococcal disease update

October 27, 2010

Colorado State University is working with county health officials who are considering possible next steps in addressing recent cases of meningococcal disease in Fort Collins. The Larimer County Health Department has linked seven cases of meningococcal disease since May to a specific strain of bacteria.

Although there is a need to respond with knowledge and awareness to help promote the overall safety and well-being of the Fort Collins and CSU communities, there is no indication that the University community is experiencing an isolated, heightened meningococcal disease health crisis.

However, as is true for all college students, Colorado State University students are at higher risk than the general population given their age and typical behaviors. For that reason, the University, in accordance with state law, encourages all incoming students living in the residence halls to get vaccinated for the disease. The University has been and will continue to work with county health officials to develop strategies to further help protect students from meningococcal disease.

Vaccination encouraged

CSU’s strategies in place at this time include educating students about behaviors that increase exposure to the bacteria that causes meningococcal disease; the importance of good personal hygiene; and how getting vaccinated decreases personal and general population risk.

The University will respond as needed and appropriate to any directives from state and county health officials if they decide to make specific recommendations to the campus community. At this time, their advice is to continue to encourage students to consider getting vaccinated.

Signs and symptoms of meningococcal disease

  • Fever
  • Headache
  • Loss of appetite
  • Neck stiffness
  • Discomfort when looking at bright lights
  • Nausea and/or vomiting
  • Diarrhea
  • Aching or sore muscles
  • Difficulty walking
  • General malaise
  • Moaning, unintelligible speech
  • Drowsiness
  • Confusion
  • Collapse
  • Rash of red-purple pinprick spots or larger bruises
  • Painful or swollen joints

How meningococcal bacteria are spread

- Meningococcal bacteria can occur naturally and live in the back of the nose and throat in about 5 – 15 percent of the population without causing harming them or making them ill. Although health officials believe that everyone is a carrier of these bacteria at some time, carriers are most common among teenagers and young adults, especially men and smokers.

- Meningococcal bacteria are difficult to spread and only live from minutes up to a few hours outside the body. They are not airborne.

- They are spread through direct contact with saliva of an infected person, including carriers. They are passed through regular, close contact such as kissing or sharing:

  • a home or sleeping facilities
  • food
  • drinking containers
  • eating utensils
  • toothbrush
  • cigarette, cigar, or hookah pipe

- Meningococcal bacteria are only found in humans.

- The bacteria cannot be picked up from water supplies, swimming pools, buildings, or factories.

- People with specific immune system problems also have more risk of contracting the disease.
- Meningococcal disease is not common but serious. Most cases occur randomly and are unrelated to any others. Outbreaks where more than one person is affected are rare.

- If you have been in very close contact with someone with the illness, your risk of getting meningococcal disease is increased.

Incubation period for symptoms

Incubation period for symptoms to appear after exposure to meningococcal bacteria:
The incubation period from exposure to display of symptoms ranges from 2-10 days, with symptoms usually appearing within 3-4 days.

What students can do

- Consider getting vaccinated or make sure that your inoculation is up to date.

- Take steps to prevent the spread of the bacteria by limiting close, intimate contact with others and avoid sharing items that expose you to the saliva of others.

- The CSU Health Network can provide students with information or vaccinations. CSU Health Network is supported by student fees, and resources are focused primarily on students.

- Anyone with symptoms of meningococcal disease is encouraged to seek medical attention. Students can access the CSU Health Network by calling a line dedicated to answering meningococcal disease questions at (970) 491-2147. Students also can visit the Hartshorn Building during business hours or seek emergency care at local hospitals.

What CSU employees can do

- Talk to your physician about your vaccination record and options.

- Take steps to prevent the spread of bacteria.

- CSU Health Network is funded by student fees and has limited resources for employees.  Employees with concerns should contact their personal physicians instead of seeking vaccines from the CSU Health Network. (This vaccine is not generally recommended for people over age 55, but if you have concerns, discuss them with your doctor.)

- Anyone with symptoms of meningococcal disease is encouraged to seek medical advice.

Why it is important to get vaccinated

- Vaccination is effective against most strains of meningococcal disease.

- Vaccination helps protect the entire community and not just the individual because it can break the chain of spread from person to person. Vaccines can prevent someone who has been exposed but does not become ill from passing the bacteria on to others.

- There are five main types of meningococcal bacteria. In the U.S., a vaccine is available that helps prevent four of the five types.

Things to remember

- Meningococcal bacteria are only passed from person to person by regular close, prolonged household and intimate contact with secretions from the back of the nose and throat.

- If you have been in contact with the saliva or nasal secretions of an infected person, talk to your medical provider about whether or not you need preventive treatment.
- Meningococcal disease is uncommon but serious.

- You are the expert in your family’s health – if you are worried, seek immediate medical assistance.

- It is important to go back to the doctor or hospital for more help if you are still concerned.

- Meningococcal vaccine provides good protection from four strains of meningococcal disease.

What you should do if someone you know has symptoms

- Seek medical help immediately if somebody close to you has some of these signs and symptoms and you are worried that they are much sicker than usual.

- In the very early stages, meningococcal disease can appear to be like other, less serious illnesses. Your doctor may not immediately recognize this illness. Do not hesitate to seek medical help again – even if it has only been an hour or two since you last sought help.

- If the person seems to be sicker, has suddenly developed a rash or becomes difficult to wake up, seek medical help urgently.

- Young adults should not be left alone if they suddenly develop a fever – they may become seriously ill very quickly.

Spectrum of conditions

What is the difference among meningococcal disease, meningitis, sepsis, and Waterhouse-Friedrichsen Syndrome?

There has been some confusion in the media about the recent meningococcal infections. Meningococcal disease is a spectrum of conditions caused by the bacteria Neisseria meningitidis. The bacteria live in the throats of about 10% of healthy people. Rarely, the bacteria get through the lining of the throat and cause infection.

Meningococcal disease usually occurs quickly and includes:   

  • Meningitis-inflammation of the brain and spinal cord.
  • Meningococcal sepsis-infection of the blood stream with the meningococcal bacteria that leads to problems with multiple organs and tissues. 
  • Waterhouse-Friedrichsen Syndrome-a severe type of meningococcal infection in which the adrenal glands (small organs on top of the kidneys that are involved in the body’s stress response) are also affected and bleed.

All forms of meningococcal disease spread person to person through saliva. All types of meningococcal infection can be treated with antibiotics if recognized in the early stages.

Neisseria meningitidis has several different groups, labeled A, B, C, Y and W-135. The meningitis vaccine is protective against the about 80% of meningococcal infections, including those caused by groups A, C, Y and W-135. Group C meningococccal infections cause about 35 percent of cases in the United States. On Oct. 27, 2010, the Advisory Council on Immunization Practices recommended a booster shot of the meningitis vaccine if it was give five or more years ago.

For more information about meningococcal disease, please see the Larimer County Health Department handout at

Contact: Dell Rae Moellenberg