Student death prompts meningitis concerns

GW students and health professionals are taking a closer look at the dangers of meningitis after a recent death of a Towson University student in Maryland.

Towson University freshman Joseph Kemperle died March 5 of meningococcal meningitis. Kemperle’s friends, members of his Kappa Sigma fraternity, and anyone he came in contact with 10 days prior to his death were advised to take an antibiotic pill to quickly kill any bacteria that might be present.

The germ that causes the disease stays in a person’s throat and is spread through contact with saliva and nasal mucus, said Dr. Isabel Goldenberg, director of Student Health Services at GW.

The vaccine is the best we can do to prevent any outbreaks, Goldenberg said. An outbreak occurs when more than two cases of the disease appear in a community, she said.

GW Student Health Services offers a $75 vaccine that guards against four of the five strains of meningitis, including the one that caused the Maryland death. More than 2,000 students received the vaccine in November, Goldenberg said.

Although most vaccines give lifelong immunity to the disease, the one offered by GW Student Health Service only lasts three years, Goldenberg said.

Freshman Greg Rovick said a student in his high school died of meningitis, which prompted him to get vaccinated.

Literally hundreds of kids in my high school went to go get it, said Rovick. Most of them had never heard of it before.

GW junior David Portnoy said he decided to get the vaccine in November because of the high risk involved with living in a residence hall

I hear its more common among college students who live in dorms, he said.

More research has been done on meningitis in past years as a result of the increase in the number of outbreaks on college campuses, said Goldenberg. The studies found students who live in dorms, frequent bars and smoke cigarettes have a slightly higher risk of contracting meningitis, she said.

Susan Haney, nurse practitioner and educational director for Student Health, said there has never been a case of meningitis at GW.

Goldenberg said the disease is rare. Only about 3,000 cases are reported each year, and the majority of them involve children between three and five months old.

Not many people have the disease, said sophomore Scott Sheffler, who was recently vaccinated. I think it’s just really serious if you get it.

The severity of the disease is one of the reasons it is well-known, said Dr. Mary Capon, a staff physician at Student Health. The disease severely affects the brain, and survivors of the disease can suffer severe motor coordination defects, she said.

The symptoms of meningitis include sudden high fevers, severe headaches and fatigue. Anyone who experiences these symptoms should seek immediate medical attention, Goldenberg said.

Goldenberg said she still recommends the vaccine as the most effective way to avoid the rare but devastating disease.

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