Officials with Columbia University in New York are reporting two meningococcal meningitis cases in members of the School of International and Public Affairs (SIPA) community .

The students are being treated at St. Luke hospitals and are responding to treatment.

Meningitis symptoms/Public domain image/Mikael Häggström
Meningitis symptoms/Public domain image/Mikael Häggström

Meningococcal disease is a rare, but very serious illness caused by a type of bacterium called Neisseria meningitidis. People spread meningococcal bacteria to other people by sharing respiratory and throat secretions (saliva or spit). Generally, it takes close contact (for example, coughing or kissing) or lengthy contact to spread these bacteria. Fortunately, they are not as contagious as germs that cause the common cold or the flu. People do not catch them through casual contact or by breathing air where someone with meningococcal disease has been.

Vaccination is one of the most effective ways to prevent meningococcal disease.

Vaccines to protect against meningococcal infection are available. The vaccine that most college students received when they were 11 or 12 years old and again at age 16 protects against four serogroups of meningococcal bacteria (A, C, W, Y). However, this vaccine does not provide protection against the strain of bacteria (serogroup B) that caused infection in these current students. Fortunately, two vaccines against serogroup B are now licensed in the United States (Bexsero® and Trumenba®) and offer protection against infection with this strain. Because these vaccines were recently licensed in 2014 and 2015, it is unlikely that many students have received them and are protected against serogroup B infection.

Other ways to prevent infection include washing your hands often and avoiding sharing things like silverware, drinking containers, lipstick, and smoking materials.