Meningococcal meningitis is a rare but potentially fatal illness caused by the bacteria Neisseria meningitidis. The bacteria are spread through the exchange of respiratory and throat secretions (i.e., coughing, kissing, sharing drinking/eating utensils). Fortunately, the bacteria are not spread by casual contact or by simply breathing the air where a person with meningitis has been.
Although anyone can come into contact with the bacteria that causes meningococcal disease, recent data indicates that college freshman living in residence halls have a slightly higher risk of contracting the disease relative to other persons their age. From 1999-2009, 14 cases of meningococcal disease were reported among college students in Oregon. Certain social behaviors, such as exposure to passive or active smoking, bar patronage, and excessive alcohol consumption, may also put students at increased risk.
While the risk of disease remains low, students living in residence halls can reduce their risk with vaccination. The vaccine protects against some types of bacterial meningitis, but not all serotypes. Menactra vaccine does not protect against meningitis caused by serogroup B disease, which accounts for about one half of cases in Oregon. Elsewhere, the other serotypes are more common. If students do not elect to be vaccinated while at Willamette, they are encouraged to do so before traveling abroad.