UMass Amherst students head across campus.
Boston Globe—Boston Globe via Getty Images
By Jamie Ducharme
Updated: November 29, 2017 4:48 PM ET
TIME Health
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The University of Massachusetts Amherst has declared a meningitis outbreak on campus, after two students tested positive for the same strain of meningococcal disease, a type of bacterial infection known as meningitis when it infiltrates the lining of the spinal cord and brain.

UMass Amherst, which conducted testing in collaboration with the Massachusetts Department of Public Health and the CDC, announced the outbreak on Wednesday. Here’s what you need to know.

What is meningitis?

Meningitis involves inflammation of the membranes, or meninges, that line the brain and spinal cord, according to the Mayo Clinic. It’s typically caused by a viral infection, but in some cases bacteria or fungus can also be to blame. Cases of the disease range in severity, but it can be fatal.

What are the symptoms of meningitis?

Many meningitis symptoms — such as fever, nausea, vomiting and lack of appetite — can be confused with the flu or other less-serious diseases, according to the Mayo Clinic. Differentiating symptoms include a stiff neck, a particularly severe or unusual headache, confusion, difficulty concentrating, seizures, light sensitivity and, sometimes, a skin rash that resembles pinpricks.

How is meningitis treated?

Meningitis treatment depends on how it was contracted, the Mayo Clinic says. Bacterial meningitis will likely be treated with antibiotics, while viral meningitis — which won’t respond to antibiotics — could require antivirals or corticosteroids, which reduce swelling. Some non-life-threatening cases are also treated with bed rest, fluids and over-the-counter medications.

How does meningitis spread?

Most often, the CDC says, meningitis spreads through human-to-human contact, either indirectly — by breathing in particles emitted through coughing or sneezing, for example — or through direct contact, such as kissing or sharing beverages. Sometimes, germs can also contaminate food.

How is UMass Amherst handling the meningitis outbreak?

School officials are hosting walk-in clinics for at-risk students, including undergraduates, graduate students living in undergraduate housing and those with certain immune deficiencies, who are encouraged to get the serogroup B vaccination, which helps prevent transmission of the strain detected on campus. Nearly 1,500 students have already gotten the shot, the school said in its announcement. Classes and other university activities will not be interrupted.

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