Ebola may be making headlines, but it isn’t the virus most people should be afraid of. Every year, thousands of students and
faculty at universities across the country fall victim to outbreaks of viruses
such as meningitis, gastroenteritis and mumps.
The University of Maryland is the latest to have an outbreak of a virus -- viral meningitis. The number of cases has grown to 20 at UMD, according to the University Health Center.
“Since this discovery, the Health Center has been tracking these cases carefully in close collaboration with the Prince George’s County Health Department and the State Health Department,” David McBride, the director of the health center said in an address to the University.
Viral meningitis is not as dangerous as the bacterial strain of the virus. According to McBride, symptoms of viral meningitis include severe headaches, fever, nausea, vomiting and, sometimes, dehydration.
“I think it [the outbreak] is very concerning and ever since I found out about it, I have been very cautious about sharing drinks or anything from people at parties,” Jenny Gandhi, a senior at UMD said.
UMD is not the first college to be hit with an outbreak where students and faculty members fall ill and, in some cases, have to be admitted to the hospital. A common virus to spread quickly around universities is mumps. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, mumps is a vaccine-preventable viral disease, characterized by the swelling of the salivary glands; serious complications, such as meningitis can occur if the virus goes untreated.
In October 2011, the California Department of Public Health (CDPH) confirmed a mumps outbreak at the University of California-Berkeley. The number of suspected and confirmed cases grew to 44 and began when a UC Berkeley student contracted the virus in Great Britain, according to the CDPH.
The virus quickly spread through the highly populated student dorms. The university health services focused preventive efforts on those areas and encouraged students to get the Measles Mumps Rubella vaccine (MMR).
Along with mumps, gastroenteritis is also very commonly spread throughout colleges. It is an intestinal infection caused by norovirus and is marked by diarrhea, abdominal cramps, nausea or vomiting and sometimes fever, according to the Mayo Clinic. It is contracted through close contact with an infected person, or from contaminated food or water.
In the spring of 2011, the norovirus hit Spring Arbor University in Michigan so severely that the university postponed its commencement by one week. The University reported that over 170 students were infected and hoped that postponing the commencement would help stop the spread of the virus.
“These decisions are preventative and consistent with the medical advice received. Of utmost concern for all of us is the safety and health of our campus community and the families and friends planning on participating in the various academic year-end activities,” University President at the time, Charles Webb said in an address to the university. “Spring Arbor University has a responsibility of doing what is in the best interest of our students, faculty, staff and visitors to campus.”
All of these viruses are so common among college students because everyone is living and eating in such close quarters. Sharing bathrooms is also a large factor when it comes to the spread of viruses. According to the Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices (ACIP), “college freshmen who live in dormitories are six times more likely than other people to be infected with meningitis. They have the country's highest rate of the disease, at 5.1 cases per 100,000.”
Currently dealing with an outbreak of meningitis, UMD's recent spread of meningitis is now suspected as stemming from the respiratory enterovirus-68 that has spread across the nation. The state public health lab in Maryland is conducting further testing to confirm this connection, State Epidemiologist Dr. David Blythe said.
According to the university health center, five meningitis cases were confirmed as having been caused by an enterovirus, however, with more than 100 strains of the virus, the University is not certain which strain caused the meningitis, and predicted that it may be weeks before officials know. The University is urging students and faculty to stay vigilant in personal hygiene and hand washing in order to control and stop the spread of the virus.