12/05/2013 01:28 pm ET Updated Jan 23, 2014

Meningitis: What Is The Dangerous Infection Spreading At Princeton And UC Santa Barbara?

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Twelve people at two U.S. universities have developed bacterial meningitis so far this year, with most of the cases occurring in just the last month, according to news reports.

Four students developed the infection last month at the University of California at Santa Barbara, Reuters reported. Eight people have developed the infection at Princeton University in New Jersey (cases developed from March to November), according to USA Today.

Vaccines administered in the United States aren't effective against the particular strain of bacterial meningitis detected in these most recent cases, which has prompted the Food and Drug Administration to grant special permission for Princeton University officials to administer a vaccine not approved for use in the U.S. (but is approved in Europe) that guards against this strain. Reuters reported that UC Santa Barbara officials are also in talks with health officials about using the vaccine with their students.

Meningitis is notoriously dangerous. USA Today reported that one student at UC Santa Barbara has already had to have two feet amputated because of the infection. Meningitis -- which occurs when the membranes around the brain and spinal cord (called the meninges) become inflamed -- can be caused by bacteria, fungi or a virus.

The Cleveland Clinic reported that acute bacterial meningitis is the most common form of meningitis, accounting for 80 percent of cases. Unfortunately, bacterial meningitis can be fatal -- the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported that there were 4,100 cases and 500 deaths from bacterial meningitis between 2003 and 2007.

The death rate for bacterial meningitis is thought to be 10 percent, according to the Cleveland Clinic.

Bacteria that commonly cause bacterial meningitis include Haemophilus influenza, Streptococcus pneumonia, Listeria monocytogenes, group B Strep, and Neisseria meningitides, according to the CDC. Meningitis-causing bacteria are present in the environment, but can also live in the nose or respiratory system without making you sick, the Cleveland Clinic reported.

The "hallmark symptoms" of meningitis are headache, fever and stiff neck, though other symptoms include vomiting, seizures, light sensitivity, skin rash and sleepiness, according to the Mayo Clinic. Symptoms often occur within 24 hours of being infected. It's important to see a doctor immediately if you suspect meningitis because recovery hinges on quick treatment. The Mayo Clinic points out that permanent brain damage or death can occur if you delay immediate treatment, which often includes intravenous antibiotics and cortisone medications.

The meningitis vaccine currently approved in the U.S. is recommended for kids 11 to 18, college freshman (who live in dorms) and military recruits, as well as other people who may be exposed to meningitis occupationally or through traveling.

Fortunately, the CDC points out that most bacterial causes of meningitis -- while contagious -- are not as easy to catch as the viruses that cause cold or the flu; you can't get it just by breathing the same air as an infected person, or through casual contact with an infected person. However, sustained, close contact with an infected person can put you at risk for meningitis (like if you live in the same place or spend prolonged periods of time with someone during the day), as well as coming into contact directly with an infected person's oral secretions, according to the CDC.