Health Advisory: Meningococcal Disease

Columbia Health
February 01, 2019

Email sent to Columbia Community on February 1, 2019 at 6:45 p.m.

Dear Columbia Community:

We write to let you know that two members of the School of International and Public Affairs (SIPA) community were recently diagnosed with bacterial meningitis, caused by the meningococcal bacteria known as type B.  They are currently hospitalized and are responding to treatment.  We understand the great concern this causes. We are sharing information through this letter and the attached fact sheet to ensure that you understand the nature of this illness and the limited ways that transmission can occur, and also so you are fully aware of what we are doing to protect the health of our community. In speaking with them today, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and local health officials recommend that activities on the Columbia University campus continue as normal. 

Potential for Exposure

Close personal contacts (most commonly those who live in the household or who have spent extended periods of time with the ill individual) are sometimes advised to take preventative (prophylactic) antibiotic treatment.  As such, Columbia Health is working closely with the city, state, and national health officials to get their guidance regarding such prophylaxis for the University community.  We have already identified the individuals who may have been exposed and have contacted them directly to offer them prophylactic antibiotics.

About Meningitis

There are two general forms of meningitis: bacterial (usually Pneumococcal or Meningococcal) and viral (which can be caused by a host of viral agents). Bacterial meningitis is contagious, but generally is transmitted through direct exchange of respiratory and throat secretions by close personal contact, such as coughing, sharing drinks, kissing, and being in close proximity for an extended period. Fortunately, none of the bacteria that cause meningitis are as contagious as the common cold or the flu and they are not spread by casual contact or by simply breathing the air or being in the same building where a person with meningitis has been.  Though extremely serious, bacterial meningitis can be effectively treated with intravenous antibiotics. 


Signs and symptoms of bacterial meningitis could include high fever, headache, stiff neck, mental confusion, vomiting, feeling very tired, and a skin rash. The incubation period can vary from two to ten days, but on average is four days.


Vaccines to protect against meningococcal infection are available. The vaccine that most college students received when they were 11 or 12 years old and again at age 16 protects against four serogroups of meningococcal bacteria (A, C, W, Y). However, this vaccine does not provide protection against the strain of bacteria (serogroup B) that caused infection in these current students. Fortunately, two vaccines against serogroup B are now licensed in the United States (Bexsero® and Trumenba®) and offer protection against infection with this strain. Because these vaccines were recently licensed in 2014 and 2015, it is unlikely that many students have received them and are protected against serogroup B infection.

It generally takes 10 to 14 days for immunity to build after the first dose; the second dose in the vaccine series should be given at least one month after the initial dose. Therefore, the vaccine does not provide immediate protection but rather builds long-term immunity. Next week, we will provide information about vaccine availability on campus. Columbia University will follow recommendations given by local, state, and national healthcare officials around community vaccination.

More Information

Columbia Health is encouraging members of the University community to pay increased attention to personal hygiene practices in light of these confirmed cases. Helpful precautions include:

  • Always coughing into a sleeve or tissue, washing hands frequently, and using hand sanitizer often.
  • Not sharing drinking glasses, cigarettes, other smoking material, eating utensils, or drinking from a common source, such as a punch bowl.

Read more about bacterial meningitis and precautions on Columbia Health’s website. More information is available on the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention website and the New York State Department of Health website. A fact sheet is also attached.

Members of the University community who experience symptoms or have health concerns may contact Columbia Health at 212-854-7426.

Thank you for your attention to this important matter.

With care for our community,

Melanie Bernitz, MD, MPH
Associate Vice President and Medical Director, Columbia Health       
Associate Clinical Professor of Medicine (in the Center for Family and Community Medicine)