College one of the best places to catch a disease like meningitis, experts say Close contact, odd hours make it easier to spread

March 25, 1997|By David Folkenflik | David Folkenflik,SUN STAFF Sun staff writer Diana K. Sugg contributed to this article.

College is by all accounts a perfect place to acquire knowledge, an ideal setting to fall in love, and, health experts say, one of the best spots imaginable to contract a contagious disease like meningitis.

"Nothing is sanitary in college," explained Brett Oswick, a 22-year-old Loyola College senior from Cleveland. "You don't go to bed at normal hours. You don't wake up at normal hours. The way the dishes get done in a college room is you hit it with some water."

In fact, the very things that separate a student's life in college from the more ordered professional world also make it much more likely that students will contract meningitis.

Any person's chance of contracting the disease is extremely unlikely. Meningitis is harder to catch than tuberculosis.

But meningitis is a contagious disease, spread by shared saliva -- and therefore, shared beer, cigarettes, soda, silverware and kisses as well.

"This is very close personal contact -- lip-to-lip, mouth-to-mouth kind of thing," said Dr. Michael Scheld, a professor of medicine at the University of Virginia who specializes in meningitis-related conditions.

When the body is run down, from a lack of sleep or of proper nutrition -- common facets of campus existence -- that may weaken the body's immune system, too, some health experts suggest. As they mature, adults develop the ability to ward off germs more easily.

"We know you're at greater risk when you're on a campus," said state Sen. Paula C. Hollinger, a Baltimore County Democrat. She has championed bills in the General Assembly to require that students be vaccinated for major diseases -- although not meningitis -- before they can matriculate at a Maryland college.

"Whether you're sharing a can of soda, or drinking from the same milk carton or -- as we used to say -- are making out, you are increasing your chances" of catching a communicable disease like meningitis, said Hollinger, who is also a registered nurse.

Health officials said it may not be coincidental that the recent cases of meningitis-related ailments at Loyola affected athletes. Students and health experts say closeness is more pronounced among members of an athletic squad. They often bunk closely together; on sidelines, they typically share bottles of water, which could serve as an easy conduit of communicable disease.

"It's the intensity of [interaction with others] and the continuous proximity," that leave students vulnerable, said Dr. Charles Haile, head of infectious diseases at Greater Baltimore Medical Center. When the Army faced meningitis in its ranks in the 1950s and 1960s, Haile said, officials devised a relatively practical solution: They had the cots placed further apart in the barracks.

Pub Date: 3/25/97

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