This Week in Sex: Meningitis at Princeton, the Cheneys’ Public Dispute, and Herpes on a Library Book


This Week in Sex is a weekly summary of news and research related to sexual behavior, sexuality education, contraception, STIs, and more.

Princeton to Students: Stop Kissing Until Meningitis Threat Clears

We have always been told a kiss is just kiss, but that’s not entirely true on the Princeton University campus right now. The Ivy League school has been dealing with an outbreak of bacterial meningitis since a student returned to school with it after spring break. Thus far, seven people have come down with the illness over the last eight months, despite the school’s efforts to stem the outbreak.

Meningitis is an inflammation of the membranes covering the brain and spinal cord (the meninges) that can be caused by a number of different bacteria or viruses. Bacterial meningitis is usually quite severe and can move very fast. It often starts with a sudden onset of fever and a stiff neck. Though most people do recover from the illness, if not treated quickly it can cause brain damage, learning disabilities, and hearing loss.

Bacterial meningitis is spread through close contact. It is not as contagious as a cold or flu virus, so just being in a room with an infected person is not dangerous. That said, it can be spread through coughs, shared food or drink, and, yes, kisses. Sound a little like a dorm on a Friday night? In fact, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention note that college students are particularly vulnerable to the infection because of their communal living situations.

To cut down on the outbreak, the school has posted signs reminding students to “keep healthy and carry on” by not sharing drinks or kissing, and red cups around campus have been adorned with stickers that say “Mine. Not Yours.” Cute, but not enough. The most recent case was diagnosed just last week.

There is a vaccine for bacterial meningitis that all students entering college in New Jersey are required to get. I know the commercial for it well because it uses fear so very effectively. It shows teens (in high school, not college) hanging out, passing a water bottle back and forth, and then sharing a pretty innocent locker-side kiss. The voiceover—“this is what meningococcal meningitis looks like just 24 hours before it claims a child’s life”—made me call my pediatrician when I heard it, even though my kid was only 2 (it turns out you can’t get the vaccine until age 10 or 12). The problem at Princeton, however, is that the version of the vaccine that is available in the United States does not protect against the strain of meningitis they are dealing with. It covers sero-groups A, C, Y, and W-135, but the outbreak is being caused by sero-group B.

University officials submitted an Investigational New Drug application to the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and were granted permission to import a European version of the vaccine that does cover sero-group B. That vaccine has not been approved by the FDA but is already being used in Europe and Australia. Princeton is paying to import the vaccine and will offer it to students for free; students will not be required to get the vaccine.

According to the Daily Princetonian, 76 percent of students plan to get the vaccine even though most don’t feel like they are in imminent danger and believe the media has exaggerated the situation. Only 13 percent of students have decided not to get the vaccine, and 10 percent remain undecided.

In the meantime, campus parties may have to go on without anyone sharing warm keg beer or making out in the corner.

Same-Sex Marriage Is Legalized in Another State, as the Cheneys Battle It Out Publicly

This week, Illinois became the 16th state to legalize same-sex marriage (following closely behind New Jersey last month and Hawaii just a couple of weeks ago), and yet all eyes are on Wyoming and the family of former Vice President Dick Cheney.

Cheney’s older daughter, Liz, is running in a Republican primary in Wyoming in which she is trying to unseat conservative Sen. Mike Enzi by coming across as even more conservative. To that end, Liz told Fox News Sunday that she still believes in a “traditional” view of marriage and is opposed to same-sex marriage. Though this might not be a big statement for most conservative political hopefuls, Cheney’s younger sister, Mary, is gay and married to a woman. Liz said on TV, “I love Mary very much, I love her family very much. This is just an issue on which we disagree.”

Mary and her family were not appeased, and took to Facebook to respond. She wrote, “Liz—this isn’t just an issue on which we disagree—you’re just wrong—and on the wrong side of history.”

Her wife, Heather Poe, wrote an even more personal retort:

I was watching my sister-in-law on Fox News Sunday (yes Liz, in fifteen states and the District of Columbia you are my sister-in-law) and was very disappointed to hear her say “I do believe in the traditional definition of marriage.” Liz has been a guest in our home, has spent time and shared holidays with our children, and when Mary and I got married in 2012 – she didn’t hesitate to tell us how happy she was for us. To have her now say she doesn’t support our right to marry is offensive to say the least. I can’t help but wonder how Liz would feel if as she moved from state to state, she discovered that her family was protected in one but not the other. I always thought freedom meant freedom for EVERYONE.

This last bit was most likely meant to jab at the view of Liz as a carpetbagger who moved to Wyoming solely for the purpose of running for Senate.

In the week since this feud erupted, the number of states that would recognize Liz and Heather as sisters-in-law jumped by one, but that might not make a difference at the next family gathering. The elder Cheneys, who have come out in support of same-sex marriage in the past, seem to have sided with politics this time, chastising Heather and Mary for taking the issue public. In a statement, they said, “This is an issue we have dealt with privately for many years, and we are pained to see it become public. Since it has, one thing should be clear. Liz has always believed in the traditional definition of marriage.”

The primary is set for August 2014, and the winner is expected to easily take the general election, as Wyoming is a very conservative state. As of now, Liz Cheney is behind in the polls. Of more immediate importance, the two sisters, who were once close but have not spoken since the summer, are not planning on having Thanksgiving dinner together.

Think Twice Before You Borrow That Book

Libraries are a great resource, but it may be that some books are best not borrowed.

A Belgian professor borrowed some of the most popular books from a library in Antwerp and tested them for bacteria, microbes, and other substances. Of course library books, or anything else that is passed from person to person and household to household will have germs, but what he found may surprise you. Oddly, most of the books he tested contained trace amounts of cocaine. The researcher told Dutch Flanders News that there wasn’t enough cocaine for anyone to get high, but that readers could have tested positive for exposure to cocaine after handling the book.

The other noteworthy finding was the discovery of Herpes Simplex Virus-1, which can cause cold sores on the mouth or genital herpes outbreaks, on the soft-core porn book that took the world by storm, Fifty Shades of Grey. No worries, there was not enough virus on the book to be a health threat to readers, but it does make you pause and think about the ways in which the previous borrower might have been, shall we say, multi-tasking while reading.

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Follow Martha Kempner on twitter: @MarthaKempner