Meningitis Risks and Rates

What is the rate of incidence?

Bacterial meningitis is, unfortunately, not uncommon. The average attack rate in industrialized nations is around 1 to 3 per 100,000 of the population.

Public health carefully monitors the situation for any epidemiological links among the cases (direct contact leading to transmission) or abnormal increases of cases.

How does bacterial meningitis spread?

The disease spreads by direct contact, including respiratory droplets from the nose and throat of infected people. It is not a food-borne disease and the spread of the disease from a "contaminated" object like money, dishes, doorknobs, or clothing is insignificant.

The incubation period - the time from exposure to an active illness - is two to 10 days, typically three to four days. Susceptibility to the disease is generally lower with age, but the rates of disease increase in adolescence and young adulthood.

Who is at risk of contracting bacterial meningitis?

Close contacts - such as those sharing sleeping spaces and those sharing eating utensils - are at a higher risk for infection. College students and anyone whose immune system may be weakened due to stress, lack of sleep, etc. are more at risk for contracting the disease when exposed to the bacterium. However, it is important to know that this bacterium occurs naturally and does not cause symptoms in 5 to 25 percent of the population.

Activities with crowds, exposure to tobacco smoke, and upper respiratory infections increase the risk of bacterial meningitis.

Why are college students at greater risk?

College students may be more likely to engage in high risk behaviors that are likely to result in exposure, like sharing drinks and other close contact. This results in a slightly increased risk of contracting the disease.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, a study in Maryland found that the risk of bacterial meningitis in college students was similar to that for persons of the same age in the general population (1.4 to 1.7 cases per 100,000 population).

However, in that study, the risk among students who lived in on-campus housing was about three times higher (about 3 per 100,000 population) than students who lived off campus (about 1 per 100,000 population) and about twice as high as the general population of the same age.