A University of Virginia student is recovering from bacterial meningitis and almost 50 other students have been treated for the infection, an official said Monday.
The student contracted the B strain of the potentially deadly disease, said Dr. James Turner, executive director of student health for UVa. Of 51 students identified as having been in direct contact with the infected student, 47 have been treated with antibiotics, Turner said.
Vaccinations have little success in preventing the B strain, Turner said.
"The highest risk is to people who had contact with secretions from an infected person's nose or mouth; through kissing, sharing drinking glasses, being in close contact for a period of time, perhaps sharing a pillow or having the [infected person] sneeze in their faces," Turner said.
The bacteria are not spread by casual contact, such as simply breathing the same air as someone infected with the disease, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention .
Early onset symptoms are similar to influenza in that they include fever, headache, a stiff neck, nausea, vomiting and sensitivity to light. Altered mental states and seizures might follow and a rash often appears as the disease progresses.
About 4,100 cases of bacterial meningitis, 500 involving death, were recorded each year from 2003 to 2007, according to the CDC.
"Even in this age of antibiotics and amazing emergency medicine and emergency rooms, up to 15 percent of people can die from it and as many as 20 percent may have complications such as needing amputation, kidney failure or brain damage," Turner said. "It's serious."
The infection is rare, but more common in groups of people in close contact with one another, such as college students in dormitories, according to the CDC. Requirements that college students be vaccinated for the bacteria have cut down as much as 80 percent the cases reported in the past 20 years, however.
"The vaccination effort has a made a big difference to the point that most of the cases we're seeing are caused by the B strain," Turner said.
The B strain has appeared at UVa before. In September 2006, fourth-year student Jennifer Leigh Wells, an Albemarle County native and Monticello High School graduate, died of the infection. Her family has honored her memory with an annual moonlight walk and run fundraiser for the National Meningitis Association.
Several years before that, university health officials contacted 700 students for treatment after a student who drank from a beer keg spout was diagnosed with the disease. That student recovered.
Meningitis this month claimed the lives of students at West Chester University near Philadelphia and Kalamazoo College southwest of Lansing, Mich. In the latter case, at least 120 people received antibiotic treatment as a precaution, officials said.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.