A campus community advisory was sent to all University of Calgary staff and students last week, informing them of an isolated case of potentially fatal bacterial meningitis in a student.
Bacterial meningitis causes swelling of the tissue surrounding the brain and spinal cord and can be fatal if left untreated. It is spread through contact with saliva, putting people aged between 15 and 24 at a higher risk than the rest of the population, according to Calgary Health Region deputy health officer Dr. Judy MacDonald.
"People in that age group tend to share more things that have been in their mouth," said Dr. MacDonald, noting that sharing food, drinks or lip gloss can transmit the disease.
"They can be [more susceptible] because of the other behaviour they engage in," she said.
Symptoms of bacterial meningitis include sudden onset of fever, intense headache, stiff neck, nausea, vomiting, light sensitivity, confusion, sleepiness and rash. Bacterial meningitis can be treated with antibiotics. Meningitis can also be caused by a virus, which usually runs its course in one or two weeks, but is not as severe as bacterial meningitis and is rarely fatal.
Despite the one case in a U of C student, Dr. MacDonald said bacterial meningitis is rare within Canada.
"The disease is quite rare in people," she said. "At any time up to 10 per cent of the population can be carrying the bacteria in their throat and not even know it."
There were an average of 303 cases of bacterial meningitis per year in Canada from 1985 to 2001. In Alberta in 2003 there was an outbreak of 23 cases.
Dr. MacDonald said the risk to students is low if they take basic precautions such as avoiding others' saliva, washing their hands often and going to a doctor if they are feeling ill, especially with a high fever, stiff neck or rash.
"Whenever we have a case of bacterial meningitis public health follows up with all of the close contacts and gives them antibiotics to ensure it doesn't spread," said Dr. MacDonald.