AMHERST, Mass. - A first-year University of Massachusetts student from Harwich, Mass., was hospitalized May 19 due to a laboratory-confirmed case of meningitis. She is currently listed in critical but stable condition at Baystate Medical Center, Springfield.
Meningitis is an inflammation of the linings of the brain and spinal cord that can be caused by viruses or bacteria. In the current case, the diagnosis is of the bacterial type.
Anne J. Lardner, public health nurse at University Health Services, said bacterial meningitis occurs rarely and sporadically throughout the year, although outbreaks tend to occur in late winter and early spring. Some forms of the illness can be fatal, and persons who have had intimate contact with a patient in the two weeks before the diagnosis may be advised to take preventive antibiotics.
Lardner said all immediate close contacts with the patient have been contacted and treated with prophylactic oral antibiotics (ciprofloxacin). Besides close friends and contacts, this includes some 150-180 people who attended a fraternity party along with the patient on May 12 at Alpha Tau Gamma fraternity.
Lardner said the disease is spread through direct contact with respiratory droplets from the nose and throat of an infected person. The reason party attendees were advised to take prophylactic antibiotics, Lardner said, was because they had been passing around and sharing beverage cups.
"I can’t emphasize strongly enough that people should not share items such as eating utensils, drinking cups, water bottles, or smoking materials," Lardner said. "It is simply not worth the risk." Other precautions, she said, include covering one’s mouth when coughing or sneezing, and washing hands after contact with oral secretions.
Lardner said the bacteria cannot usually live for more than a few minutes outside the body, and, therefore, are not easily transmitted by routine contact with an infected person.
Early symptoms of meningitis include fever, neck stiffness, nausea and vomiting, and severe sudden headache accompanied by exhaustion, malaise, and lethargy. People experiencing these symptoms should contact their medical provider.