Meningitis plagues college students across the nation

Amber Foley

When Mariam Pourshoushtari contracted meningitis in June, it changed her life forever.
The 20-year-old journalism junior who was a varsity gymnast is planning to return to University classes next semester, but her gymnastics career is over. Because Pourshoushtari’s brain shut down during her two-month coma during her illness, she lost blood circulation and had to have both feet and 1.5 fingers on each hand amputated.
“She’s been through a lot,” said Eric Daigre, a graduate student in English and close friend of Pourshoushtari’s. “But she’s like the same person we’ve always known. I’m amazed at how incredible her attitude has been.”
The American College Health Association reports a 50 percent increase in the number of reported meningitis cases at colleges since the early 1990s.
Ed Ehlinger, Boynton Health Service director, said he believes Pourshoushtari was the first meningitis case at the University in the past five years.
Living with meningitis
Pourshoushtari became ill with meningococcal meningitis on June 6, but didn’t realize it at first.
“The whole week before, I was sick, but I didn’t feel all that bad,” Pourshoushtari said. “I went to a party the night before and had a lot of fun.”
But the next day Pourshoushtari said she woke up feeling like she was going to die.
“I felt very confused; my roommate asked me if I wanted to go to the hospital,” Pourshoushtari said.
If her roommate hadn’t taken her to the hospital, Pourshoushtari said she would have died that night.
“Two hours after I went to the hospital, my kidneys completely shut down,” she said. The meningitis had progressed so far that it shut down her brain and caused multiple organ failures. That night, Pourshoushtari said doctors had to revive her twice.
Because Pourshoushtari’s kidneys — responsible for ridding the body of toxins — shut down, she said her blood became poisonous, causing third-degree burns all over her body.
Because Pourshoushtari was unconscious for two months, the tendons in her arms tightened up, causing her fingers to stiffen. They still don’t move easily, she said.
“I wish they would just work properly,” Pourshoushtari said. “It’s so hard because you use your hands so much.”
“It’s changed my life a lot, and I’m still recovering,” she said. “I used to have a lot of energy and only sleep for four hours a night. Now I need 10 hours, and I lay around a lot; it’s a lot different.”
National concerns
National health organizations have said that college students should pay more attention to meningitis.
The American College Health Association is now recommending that all college students consider getting a meningitis vaccine. The organization also suggested that college health care providers offer more information about and access to the vaccine, especially to freshman and students living in dormitories.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that freshman living in dormitories have more than six times higher a risk of contracting meningitis than college students overall.
Ehlinger said that in light of this national attention on meningitis, the University is planning educational programs in its residential halls.
He said the University will distribute pamphlets and information to students and parents next semester. Community advisors in residence halls will also hold student informational sessions in the upcoming semester.
More than 83 meningitis cases, including six fatal ones, have been reported in the nation’s colleges during the past academic year.
Meningococcal disease — including meningitis and an even deadlier, less common blood infection known as meningococcemia — often strikes infants, toddlers and others with weak immune systems.
Ehlinger said 15 percent of the population carries the meningitis bacteria in their throats at any given time, but they don’t spread it or succumb to it.
Disease symptoms are usually flu-like, he said. They include high fever, headaches, neck stiffness, confusion, nausea, vomiting, lethargy and rashes.
Students can be sick for a couple of days, but then go downhill in hours, Ehlinger said.
The meningitis vaccine is 90 to 95 percent effective for certain meningitis strains, Ehlinger said. Immunity usually lasts three to five years.
Ehlinger said the vaccine is available at Boynton for $75, but it is not covered by student fees and most insurance companies usually don’t cover it.
Boynton averaged five to 10 vaccines per day last week, with more dosages being ordered, Ehlinger said. The increase in demand for vaccinations is likely because of the added attention on the disease, he said.
“Each student needs to assess what the real risks are, what the costs are, what the side effects are and if we know enough about the vaccine,” Ehlinger said.
Meningococcal meningitis is transmitted through the air and through direct contact. Oral contact, such as kissing and sharing drinking glasses, can also put a person at risk.
“A student’s social behaviors can also have an effect, such as living in dorms, smoking and excessive alcohol (consumption),” Ehlinger said.
Pourshoushtari said that before she contracted meningitis, she ran herself down.
“I didn’t eat well, and I didn’t sleep,” she said. “No one thinks this can happen to them, but if you really run yourself down, something bad will happen.”

Amber Foley welcomes comments at [email protected] She can also be reached at (612) 627-4070 x3214.