Editorial: Meningitis at UMass calls for prudence, not panic

  • George Corey, executive director of University Health Services at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, speaks Nov. 14 during a press conference on campus regarding two students recently diagnosed with meningitis. BULLETIN FILE PHOTO

Saturday, November 25, 2017

The diagnosis of two cases of meningitis B at the University of Massachusets Amherst in the past month calls for prudence, not panic, on campus. We believe that university and state health officials are taking the proper steps to identify students who may be most at risk, and to widely publicize the availability of a vaccine.

The two students who were diagnosed Oct. 24 and Nov. 12 are recovering in hospitals and last week were listed in stable condition, according to university officials. The two students both were infected by type B meningitis, but were not in close contact with each other, which raised the level of concern about how the disease spread, according to Dr. George A. Corey, executive director of University health Services.

However, Corey also cautioned that “the risk of invasive meningococcal disease in any individual student is very low and that following health-smart practices will prevent the spread of the disease.”

Meningitis results from bacteria that may cause swelling of the protective membranes covering the brain and spinal cord, or infect the blood and other body organs. Between 1,000 and 1,200 cases are reported in the United States each year, and 10 percent to 15 percent of those patients die, according to the Massachusetts Department of Public Health.

Corey said that University Health Services is working with the state DPH and the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The DPH sent a letter Nov. 17 to all health care providers in the state notifying them of the two meningitis cases, advising them to watch for symptoms of the disease and suggesting that they offer UMass Amherst students a vaccine protecting against type B.

The state requires all full-time high school and college students living in dormitories or other group housing to receive a standard meningitis vaccine that protects against types A, C, W and Y, but not type B.

There are two meningitis B vaccines, Bexsero (requiring two shots at least 28 days apart) and Trumenba (three shots, with the last six months after the first). University Health Services stocks both brands and scheduled vaccinations for the campus community this week before Thanksgiving, with appointments resuming Monday. Corey advised students that if they receive the first vaccination at home, they can get the follow-up shot or shots at UHS.

Bacterial meningitis is treated with antibiotics. University officials identified people who had been in close contact with either of the students diagnosed with meningitis and were most at risk of infection. “They are being provided safe and effective antibiotics that can reduce the possibility of infection,” Corey said last week.

Symptoms of meningitis include a sudden fever, headache and stiff neck, often combined with nausea, vomiting, confusion and increased sensitivity to light.

In a statement sent Nov. 16 to the UMass Amherst campus community, Corey cautioned against overreacting. “There are no plans to interrupt any classes, attendance or housing at UMass due to” the two meningitis cases.

He also emphasized that the disease is “not spread through sweat. it is safe to go to the Recreation Center and use the exercise equipment and to swim in university pools. Do not share water bottles while working out.”

It also is “not spread through food or on the surface of washed dishes or eating utensils. Eating in UMass dining facilities is safe. You should avoid sharing utensils, cups or glasses while eating.”

And the “bacteria are not spread by shaking hands, breathing the air where a person with meningitis has been, touching doorknobs, clothing, sports or fitness equipment, or food.”

Corey encouraged campus members to observe measures recommended by the CDC: “Do not share anything that comes in contact with the mouth — water bottles, mouth guards, face masks, towels, drinking glasses, eating utensils, cosmetics, toothbrushes, smoking materials, kisses, drinks from a common source such as punch bowl.”

We hope for recovery by the two hospitalized students, and we trust that the precautions taken by health officials are effective in minimizing the risk of additional meningitis cases at UMass.