Health Center Guidance on Viral Meningitis and Viral Syndromes

Meningitis Frequently Asked Questions

Important meningitis prevention reminders

from David McBride, MD
Director, University Health Center
11/13/2014

I’m writing to let you know that we are continuing to see some level of meningitis activity in the University of Maryland community and to offer important guidance for protection from this infection. 

To date, there have been 31 confirmed or suspected cases of viral meningitis in UMD students amongst a student population of 37,000.  Approximately 19 of those students have been hospitalized for supportive treatment.  The virus causing the infection has been confirmed as a strain of enterovirus called ECHO virus, a common cause of viral meningitis outbreaks.  In otherwise healthy people, the course of the illness is generally uncomfortable and similar to the flu, and those affected typically have symptoms for 3-5 days.  Unfortunately, there is no specific treatment or vaccine for this infection.  We are not dealing with cases of bacterial meningitis, an important distinction as bacterial meningitis is much more dangerous.

To reiterate my previous messages, the virus is spread primarily in saliva, stool and secretions.  As such, the most important measures for preventing spread include:

  • Wash your hands frequently, particularly after using the bathroom.
  • Stay at home and rest if you are ill to avoid infecting others and avoid those who are sick.
  • Clean high touch surfaces in your living space (keyboards, doorknobs).  This is currently being done in the Residence Halls and Recreation Centers on campus.  In addition, the Office of Fraternity and Sorority Life has negotiated increased cleaning in many of the chapter houses.
  • If you are recovering from the infection and you share a bathroom, be sure to clean the bathroom with commercial disinfectant or bleach.
  • Avoid kissing and sharing glasses and utensils.  This is especially relevant over the upcoming football weekend.
  • If you have an underlying medical condition that causes compromise of your immune system, especial vigilance to these measures is important.

If you have symptoms consistent with viral meningitis, like fever, headache, light sensitivity and stiff neck, please visit the UHC or your doctor to be checked.  In many cases, the confirmatory test for meningitis, a spinal tap, will not be done, but a clinical diagnosis and supportive treatment can be administered.  The treatment includes plenty of fluids, rest and pain and fever reducers.

The health and safety of our community is my top priority, so I ask that you pay careful attention to these preventive measures until this outbreak has subsided.  Additional FAQs and tips can be found at www.health.umd.edu/meningitis.  With everyone’s participation, we can limit the spread of this and other infections.

Meningitis Frequently Asked Questions:

What can I do to protect myself and my friends from viral meningitis?

Viral meningitis can be spread through close contact, such as sharing glasses and utensils, or kissing.  It is best to avoid these activities to prevent the virus from spreading. You should also clean the high touch surfaces in your room with a disinfectant like bleach wipes (doorknobs, keyboards), and avoid touching your face, eyes, nose and mouth, as these are potential sites where infection can enter your body.

Viral meningitis can also be spread in bathrooms since most cases are caused by a virus called enterovirus, which can be shed in the stool even after symptoms have resolved.  Carefully cleaning your bathroom, particularly if you have a sick roommate, is advised. Use any household disinfectant cleaner and carefully wash your hands after cleaning.

If you are sick, or if you have been diagnosed with viral meningitis, it is best to follow your doctor's orders, rest and avoid going out in public.  Particularly if you are coughing and sneezing, going to class or into the community exposes others to the virus.  Wash your hands carefully, particularly after using the bathroom, and make sure that your bathroom is properly cleaned.

Does the meningitis vaccine protect me from viral meningitis?

No.  There is not a vaccine for viral meningitis. 

What is the University of Maryland doing to protect the community?

We have done several things to protect our community.  In areas of campus where there have been multiple cases of viral meningitis, we have initiated diligent cleaning of shared spaces and bathrooms. 

Given that the power to control any spread of infection rests with the members of the community, we have sent out communications encouraging prevention techniques to students, faculty and staff. 

The Health Center is tracking cases of meningitis and will initiate particular outreach to specific areas of campus that may be experiencing a clustering of cases.  This has not occurred since the initial cases were discovered.

Is viral meningitis dangerous?

Generally not.  Most of the students we have spoken with who have been sick have recovered within a couple of days.  It is important to differentiate viral from bacterial meningitis, as bacterial meningitis is generally more worrisome.  As such, we do recommend that you seek care if you have symptoms of fever, severe headache, light sensitivity and neck stiffness.  A health care provider can help to differentiate viral versus bacterial meningitis.

Is there a simple test for viral meningitis, like a blood test?

Unfortunately not.  The diagnosis of viral meningitis is often made based on the history that is reported, the symptoms noted above, and a physical exam.  In some cases, a health care provider may recommend a spinal tap be done in an Emergency Department.  This test will help to differentiate viral from bacterial meningitis, but it is an invasive test.  When it is known that viral meningitis is present in a community, a spinal tap can sometimes be foregone.

Are students with viral meningitis being forced into isolation?

No.  We are recommending that those with viral meningitis, or any viral infection for that matter, rest at home voluntarily to avoid exposing others.  Given that this infection is generally benign, there is not an indication for forced isolation.

What if I have a compromised immune system, if I'm taking chemotherapy or have an immune compromising illness?

Infections are ever present in our environment.  For those with truly compromised immune systems, being in public is a calculated risk.  If you follow good general practices of hand washing, avoiding touching your face, and avoiding sick people, your risk of "catching" an infection is reduced.  We are not currently advising that people leave campus, regardless of their general health status.