College dorm life has many positives but one of them is decidedly not the close confines that expose students to various diseases -- some of which can be serious and even fatal. Health experts contend that in college dormitories infections can spread much more quickly than elsewhere, putting students at an increased risk.
To help protect students from some of the more serious diseases, New Jersey colleges and universities, as a condition of admission, require students who live on campus to be immunized against hepatitis B, measles, mumps, rubella (MMR), and meningitis. Commuter students are not required to follow the same regimen.
"That’s why there are recommendations for those particular vaccine-preventable diseases, to make sure that those kids are up to date on all of them," said Dr. Tina Tan, an epidemiologist and assistant commissioner with the New Jersey Department of Health.
In many instances infectious diseases in college dorms are linked to behavior, said Dr. James Turner, the American College Health Association's (ACHA) liaison at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's (CDC) advisory committee on immunization practices.
For instance, a mumps outbreak at the University of Virginia a few years ago was traced back to students who watched movies in their dorm rooms, pushed their beds together, shared drinking glasses, and ate out of common bowls, said Turner, who also is the executive director for the department of student health at the University of Virginia.
What advice does Turner have for incoming freshman living in dorms when it comes to reducing their risk of contracting different diseases?
For starters, don't share pillows, drinking glasses, or dishes. He also recommends that students wash their hands frequently and use hand sanitizers regularly. Cleaning the dorm room -- at least occasionally -- is also a good idea.
Doctor Richard Weiss, an assistant professor of Family Medicine at UMDNJ School of Osteopathic Medicine, said that because college living is communal, the environment is often less than sanitary, leaving students vulnerable to certain diseases. "This is the message that we are trying to bring home and prevent the spread in close quarters like a dorm," said Weiss, who added that meningitis also could be caused by bacterial, viral, or in rare cases, a fungal infection.