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Killer Disease on Campus

TV Program Description
Original PBS Broadcast Date: September 3, 2002

 

For a small but growing number of college students, the undergraduate experience now may include a close brush with one of the most frightening infections on the planet: meningococcal disease. Long known as an illness of early childhood, meningococcal disease has doubled among teenagers and young adults in the United States during the last decade, striking college freshmen in particular. The increase has been even more alarming in other countries.

This program highlights one little-known protective measure that people can take—a vaccine that provides immunity against four of the five major types of meningococcal bacteria.

Most at risk from the disease are children under five and those from 15 to 24 years of age. College students living in dorms, especially during their first year, have a higher incidence than non-students and those living in less-congested quarters.

"Given the close quarters of freshman dorms, multiple strains of the bacteria being brought by carriers from various areas of the country or even the world, and the potential for a compromised immune system that first-year college students can experience from late-night partying, exhaustion, and respiratory infections, the risk for meningococcal disease is significantly heightened," says James C. Turner, M.D., Executive Director of Student Health Services at the University of Virginia.

Meningococcal bacteria reside harmlessly in the back of the throat in about ten percent of all adults. Only when the bacteria infiltrate the bloodstream—for reasons still unclear—does trouble begin.

Meningococcal disease is notorious for the speed with which it attacks. The program probes several cases at Michigan State University, where sophomore Adam Busuttil felt fine one evening and hours later was fighting for his life. He survived with tissue damage to his fingers and toes, which required amputation. Jeffrey Paga, also of Michigan State, was not so lucky. His parents got a midnight call from a roommate saying Jeffrey had a flu-like illness and had taken painkillers and gone to bed. He was dead by morning.

The program also covers cases in England and New Zealand, where an upsurge in meningococcal disease is being treated as a public health emergency.

Often incorrectly called meningitis, meningococcal disease can take several forms, only one of which is actually meningitis. In cases of meningococcal meningitis, the bacteria enter the lining of the brain and spinal cord, causing dangerous swelling. Though extremely serious, this infection has a death rate of only five percent compared with up to 40 percent for the form of the disease called meningococcal septicemia. In these cases, the bacteria multiply rapidly in the bloodstream, producing a deadly poison that quickly destroys small blood vessels and damages the heart and other organs. Death can come in just hours, as happened to Paga.

With about 3,000 cases a year in the United States, meningococcal disease is still relatively rare. Nonetheless, it is every parent's worst nightmare. "We're talking about a disease that could happen to any of our kids at any given time," says Dr. Brett Giroir of the Children's Medical Center of Dallas. "When you leave in the morning, your child is fine, and by the time you come home from work your child could be dead. That's pretty frightening."

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Companion Web Site Content
Amy's Story

Amy's Story
Meet a 17-year-old survivor of meningococcal disease.

Behind the Scenes

Behind
the Scenes

What it was like to film life-or-death situations.

Amy's Story

Killer in the
Bloodstream

Animations of meningococcal bacteria at work.

Making Vaccines

Making Vaccines
Create six vaccines in our virtual laboratory.



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