It can strike without warning, leaving its victim helpless against its debilitating effects. And it can be spread as easily as breathing the air.

This disease is meningitis.

It is the disease that killed 20-year-old Rochester Institute of Technology student Joseph Ferraro this past June, after he returned from the Hillel-sponsored ?Birthright Israel? trip.

Now, UR health officials want students here to take note of this deadly bacteria, and their message is clear ? get vaccinated before it is too late.

Dr. Ralph Manchester, director of University Health Services, said meningitis is a disease caused by the meningococcal bacteria, which attacks the central nervous system.

?It can be transmitted through respiratory droplets, such as saliva or close contact,? he said.

?A certain percentage have it in their nose or mouth at any given time, but fortunately their immune systems protect against it. If the immune system fails, then the bacteria will become a fatal illness.?

After exposure to the disease, symptoms include headache, stiff neck, rash and flu. The bacteria then overloads the bloodstream with toxins, affecting the central nervous system and causing a massive shutdown in the heart, lungs and kidneys that can result in death.

Manchester said that symptoms of meningitis are similar to those of the West Nile Virus, which has spread throughout New York state this summer.

However, fatality rates for meningitis are much higher ? up to 50 percent, because many fail to recognize the disease, mistaking it for the flu.

The state does not require incoming college freshmen to be immunized for meningococcal meningitis.

However, after recent cases of this disease hitting college campuses across the country, UHS has encouraged students, especially freshmen, to get the $75 vaccination.

Their message is targeted mainly toward college students, especially freshmen that live in dorms, who are in close contact with each other.

Sophomore David Lichter said he got the message from UHS and was happy that he got his shot.

?I received the vaccination this summer after hearing about the many different cases of meningitis on college campuses and through advice from my physician,? he said.

?It is reassuring to know that I do not have to worry about getting this deadly disease, which is so easy to get.?

In November, UHS will hold a special meningitis immunization clinic to help educate students in an attempt to keep this disease from hitting close to home again.

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