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Bacterial meningitis spikes among college students

| Thursday, March 12, 2009

In photos, Chelsea Kay Kanatus looks like one of those girls who had it all — silky blonde hair, blue eyes and a dazzling smile with perfect white teeth.

Looking at them, her mother can't believe she's gone, buried in a Virginia cemetery on Monday, one week after her death from bacterial meningitis.

It happened so fast.

Sheila Pack, of Stephens City, Va., said the horrific chain of events started Feb. 28 when her daughter, a 19-year-old West Virginia University freshman, went to Morgantown's Ruby Memorial Hospital emergency room for treatment of flulike symptoms. She was treated and sent home, but returned the next morning and was admitted to the hospital because her condition worsened.

Pack jumped in her car and raced to Morgantown, about 160 miles from her home. By the next morning, Chelsea was gone.

"We spent four good hours talking about everything," Pack said, her voice breaking with emotion. "I'm so glad I got there in time."

Since mid-February, at least seven college students in Pennsylvania, Ohio and West Virginia have been stricken with meningococcal, or bacterial, meningitis, an infection of fluid in the spinal cord and surrounding the brain. About 3,000 cases — including 300 fatalities — are reported annually in the United States, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Kanatus, a political science major who transferred from Shepherd University to WVU in January, is the lone fatality among the seven campus cases.

Last month, two Ohio University freshmen fell ill and recovered after hospital treatment with antibiotics, according to officials at the Athens school. Four cases have been reported in the past two months at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia.

Penn spokeswoman Phyllis Holtzman said three students hospitalized with the infection in February have recovered. A fourth student, a male undergraduate who fell ill this month, remains hospitalized in critical but stable condition.

"This is an unusual situation," said Holtzman, who has worked at the university for two decades. "I've never seen this many in one year before."

Treatable with antibiotics, bacterial meningitis is contagious and progresses rapidly as bacteria spread from person to person by kissing, coughing, sneezing, sharing utensils and other direct contact. It can cause brain damage and death and is far more severe than viral meningitis.

This week, officials at McGuffey High School in Washington County confirmed a 15-year-old student was treated at Children's Hospital of Pittsburgh for viral meningitis. Health officials said the case poses no threat to other students.

Although anyone can get bacterial meningitis, the American College Health Association reports that adolescents and young adults account for nearly a third of U.S. cases. College students living in dormitories are considered at high risk for the infection, which annually strikes about 125 students, killing from five to 15 of them, the association reported.

A vaccine for bacterial meningitis is recommended by the CDC for adolescents ages 11 to 18. Health professionals say it is not 100 percent effective because it works similarly to flu vaccines and does not protect against all five strains of the meningococcal bacteria.

"It's unfortunate, because this can be a very frightening illness. Someone who is very healthy can become very sick and, tragically, die within a few days," CDC spokesman Tom Skinner said.

Thirty-seven states have one or more meningitis-related laws to protect college and university students, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. Thirteen others and the District of Columbia have none.

Pennsylvania, Ohio, Maryland and 19 other states require students living in dormitories or campus housing to be vaccinated or sign waivers verifying they chose not to be vaccinated. Many schools, including WVU, require all incoming students to be vaccinated.

Skinner said problems arise when a vaccine-resistant strain spreads, often by someone unaware that he or she is infected. He said people can carry the bacteria and never develop the disease, which is diagnosed by testing spinal fluid.

"We don't fully understand what causes some people to get sick and others not," Skinner said.

In Morgantown, Amy Johns, public affairs director for WVU's Health Sciences Campus, said 31 people who came in contact with Kanatus received preventative antibiotic treatment. Johns confirmed that Kanatus, who lived off campus, was vaccinated.

"When you get the vaccine, you think you're safe," Pack said. "It didn't protect her."

Without answers about how her daughter contracted the infection, Pack is left to look at photos of Chelsea, and with dozens of friends stunned by grief. She set up a scholarship for students involved in DECA, a marketing education group, and will return to Morgantown on March 27 for a student memorial bell-ringing ceremony.

"She had an addictive personality and so many friends. I never realized how many people she knew," Pack said. "Her motto was 'live, laugh and love.' She did it."

Additional Information:

Know the symptoms

Symptoms of bacterial meningitis can develop over a few hours or one to two days. They can include:

• High fever

• Headache

• Stiff neck

• Nausea

• Vomiting

• Confusion

• Sensitivity to light

• Sleepiness

Source: U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

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