Viral meningitis hospitalizes freshman

GW officials breathed a sigh of relief Friday when medical tests from a Thurston Hall resident who possibly contracted a deadly form of meningitis came back negative.

Despite initial University concern and safety precautions, the male freshman is not contagious or a threat to public health, officials said. The student, who was taken to the GW Hospital Wednesday night, has viral meningitis – a form of the disease that should clear up in seven to 10 days.

GW sees two to three cases of viral meningitis every year, said Isabel Goldenberg, a university physician and director of Student Health Administration. There is no vaccine available for viral meningitis.

She said GW has never seen a case of the sometimes lethal meningococcal meningitis, which is spread through respiratory throat secretions exchanged during kissing or coughing.

Meningococcal meningitis plagues 600 people between the ages of 15 and 25, a quarter of whom are college students, said James Turner, chair of the vaccine preventable disease task force for the American College Health Association. This form of the disease kills 15 to 20 percent of its victims and causes severe medical problems such as kidney failure and amputations in another 15 to 20 percent. A vaccine for menningococcal meningitis is available but not mandated by GW . (See “Scare Prompts Vaccine Discussion” )

Although initially unsure of the student’s diagnosis, the University took precautions recommended by the Centers for Disease Control for a person with meningococcal meningitis.

Goldenberg said the student’s room was sanitized with Clorox and Lysol and vacuumed. The student’s roommates, along with others in close contact with him, were examined and deemed disease-free.

One of the roommates of the individual declined to comment.

The student was in isolation at the hospital until test results were confirmed.

The deadly form of meningitis can only be spread through very close contact, by being about a foot away from the infected person, Goldenberg said.

A cramped place such as a university residence hall can be a breeding ground for meningococcal meningitis, the most contagious form of disease and the most common among college students, Turner said.

“Because of crowded conditions … it is easy to pass bacteria,” he said.

Freshmen are especially susceptible to the disease, with a rate of five in 100,000 freshman students likely to get meningococcal meningitis, compared to one in 100,000 of all college students at risk, Turner said.

Goldenberg said freshmen usually binge drink and smoke more – activities associated with the disease.

However, she said, GW freshmen may not be at as high a risk as some other university students.

She said GW’s apartment-style housing and “the fact that students can spread through the city instead of going through a row of bars” could be a factor in why the University has never seen a case of the deadly meningococcal meningitis. She said no studies have been done to confirm the theory.

Goldenberg said GW would be ready in case a student got meningococcal meningitis, explaining that Student Health would get confirmation of the event, identify students at high risk and implement treatment. She said University Police would also publicize the health risk.

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