UPDATE – Meningitis: Why UW undergraduate students should get vaccinated

UPDATE: As of October 27, 2016, UW–Madison confirms a third student has been diagnosed with meningococcal disease. FREE vaccine against the bacteria that causes it will be available for undergraduate students age 25 and younger at the SERF (715 W. Dayton St.) on 10/27 from 10 a.m. until 5 p.m., and additional clinics will be offered there Monday, Oct. 31, from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. and Wednesday, Nov. 2, from 12 to 8 p.m. 

“I urge students to get vaccinated – it’s free and it takes just a few minutes,” says William Kinsey, MD, director of medical services at UHS. “We are exercising an abundance of caution to protect the health and safety of our students.”

Earlier this month, two UW–Madison undergraduate students were hospitalized with serogroup B meningococcal disease, a potentially life-threatening condition. Meningococcal disease is caused by the bacteria Neiserria meniningitides and can lead to meningitis, an inflammation of the membrane (the meninges) surrounding the brain and spinal cord. Many of us carry the bacteria around with us in our noses; most of us never get sick.

Fortunately, both students are on the road to recovery. But the consequences could have been dire. This is why University Health Services at UW–Madison, in consultation with state officials and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, is recommending that all undergraduate students age 25 and under on the UW campus get their serogroup B vaccine, to prevent becoming ill.

The vaccine is being provided, free-of-charge, beginning today at the SERF (Southeast Recreational Facility). More information and a complete schedule can be found here, and also listed at the end of this post.

Map showing the location of the SERF, where all UW-Madison undergraduates should get vaccinated against serogroup B meningococcal disease

Free serogroup B meningococcal disease vaccines will be provided at the SERF for all UW–Madison undergraduates

In addition to meningitis, meningococcal disease can lead to blood infections and result in a host of complications, including hearing loss, kidney damage, amputations and more. It can occur without warning among otherwise healthy people, like college students. Most students at UW–Madison are vaccinated against several types of N. meningitidis, called serogroups, including groups A, C, W and Y. Most are not protected against serotype B because a vaccine was only recently approved and it not widely recommended by public health officials.

Normally, the risk of developing meningococcal disease is quite low, affecting about 1 person in 714,000 across all age groups in the U.S.. Meningitis-causing bacteria are also less contagious than the viruses that cause the common cold or flu, according to the CDC. While the risk of contracting serogroup B meningococcal disease among 15-24 year olds in the U.S. is 1 in 2 million, which is still very low, it’s higher than the risk among the general population. And because two cases occurred in a short period of time, students at UW–Madison could be at elevated risk. The CDC recommends the vaccine.

The bacteria is transmitted through close contact with saliva and/or nasal secretions from an infected person, such as through kissing or sharing utensils, lip balms or smoking materials. Exercise extra precaution by not sharing anything that comes into contact with the mouth, UHS says.

UW–Madison is providing a vaccine called Bexsero, which must be administered in two doses to be effective. Students at UW–Madison are encouraged to get the first dose as soon as possible. They should get a second dose within one month of the first, before leaving for winter break. If you are an undergraduate, get vaccinated as soon as possible. If you know or work with undergraduate students, encourage them to get vaccinated.

UHS will provide the first dose of Bexsero at the SERF Clinic on the following schedule:


Students can receive their free vaccination at the SERF (Gym 3) on:

Thursday, Oct. 20 | 11 am – 7 pm

Friday, Oct. 21 | 10 am – 4 pm

Tuesday, Oct. 25 | 9 am – 4 pm

Wednesday, Oct. 26 | 11 am – 7 pm

Thursday, Oct. 27 | 10 am – 5 pm

Symptoms of meningococcal disease include:

  • sudden onset fever
  • headache
  • stiff neck
  • nausea
  • vomiting
  • confusion
  • sensitivity to light

Anyone with these symptoms should contact a health care provider or go to an emergency room immediately.

Questions from the campus community can be directed to health@wisc.edu. Students who are concerned or have questions about their health or are in need of counseling or support are encouraged to contact UHS at 608-265-6500. Students who believe they may be experiencing symptoms after hours can call the UHS nurse line at 605-265-5600, option 1.

While most students are not vaccinated against serogroup B, the Wisconsin Immunization Registry contains records for children and adults who were vaccinated in-state.

Vaccination is the most effective way to prevent meningococcal disease, but proper respiratory hygiene is also important:

  • Cover your mouth and nose with a tissue when coughing or sneezing.
  • Use the nearest waste receptacle to dispose of used tissues.
  • Wash your hands with soap and water or use alcohol-based hand rub after having contact with respiratory secretions and contaminated objects/materials.

Additional information is available from UHS at https://www.uhs.wisc.edu/front/meningitis-and-prevention/