After two UCSB students were diagnosed with meningococcal disease, a bacterial infection that causes the highly contagious illnesses meningitis and meningococcemia, the Santa Barbara Department of Public Health is now putting the local community on high alert.
Meningococcal disease is transmitted through contact with another individual’s respiratory and throat secretions, such as through activities like kissing and even just living in close quarters. Symptoms include high fever, severe headache, rash, increased sensitivity to light, confusion, body aches, joint pain, nausea and vomiting, and the disease can even prove life-threatening. Meningitis is an inflammation of protective membranes located on the brain and spinal cord, while meningococcemia is an infection of the blood.
A first-year student, who was the first to contract meningococcal disease and meningitis, was taken to the hospital last Tuesday, according to Student Health Executive Director Mary Ferris. Currently at Santa Barbara Cottage Hospital, the student is in critical condition due to severe sepsis, or blood poisoning, according to updates from CaringBridge.org, a non-profit organization that offers updates on the condition of hospital patients. According to the site, the student’s blood is thin, his circulation is poor and he may need to be put on dialysis to improve his kidney function.
“I just want to express our extreme sympathy for the family and for students that… have this illness,” Ferris said. “We really hope they recover. They’re both being well-cared for in the hospital.”
According to Ferris, the diagnosis of a second student sparked widespread concern from students and their parents, especially in light of the UCSB student’s critical condition and a recent meningitis outbreak at Princeton University.
“[At UCSB] it’s not an outbreak…but it is significant just because it is such a bad disease,” Ferris said. “It does happen every couple years that we’ll get one case, and there’s a lot more attention to it because of the national interest about meningitis too.”
First year pre-biology major Ashley George said she is concerned students living in residence halls have a greater chance of contracting the disease.
“We live in such close quarters so we are constantly in contact with everyone,” George said. “Most people end up just sharing a water bottle or whatever, and so it’s really easy to spread.”
However, third-year Resident Assistant for Santa Catalina Blake Husserl said he does not think students living in residence halls are at increased risk for contracting the disease, because other students come in contact with each other just as much freshmen in the dorms do.
“I don’t really think the residence halls would hurt your chances in any way,” Husserl said. “I think that it’s as dangerous as just being in school here because the close quarters are equal to that of just being in classes with people.”
According to Ferris, the infection is not unique to the residence halls, as locations where the disease usually surface are “common” places with a great density of people.
“Whenever people are living in close conditions, there’s more chance of a spread of this infection,” Ferris said, “So that would be true if you were an army recruit, or [if] you went to a convention where there were a lot of people in the same room for a long time.”
Frequent hand-washing and overall good hygiene can help to prevent the spread of the disease, as well as abstaining from sharing water bottles, drinking glasses, eating utensils and cosmetics, according to Ferris. She also said meningitis occurs most frequently amongst young freshmen or college students because the bacteria attacks young, healthy people.
“The fact that you’re a young healthy person living in close quarters with everyone else increases your risk,” Ferris said, “But you can really decrease that risk by getting that meningitis shot.”
Student Health will offer a meningitis vaccine on a walk-in basis on Tuesdays from 9 to 11 a.m. and Fridays from 1:30 to 3:30 p.m. The UCEN will also offer shots next Tuesday from 11:30 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. The vaccination is recommended for all students ages 16 and up. For more information visit http://studenthealth.sa.ucsb.edu/.
A version of this article appeared on page 1 of November 19th’s print edition of the Daily Nexus.