- The Washington Times - Thursday, December 13, 2012

Health and disease officials said people should not worry about widespread illness after a Maryland high school student died Tuesday from a possible bacterial infection.

A female junior at Glen Burnie High School in Anne Arundel County died after showing symptoms like those for meningitis, a bacterial infection that can kill a person within days.

Though the county has yet to confirm the infection was the cause of the student’s death, it wouldn’t be the nation’s first death this year caused by such an infection.

The nation sees about 1,000 cases of bacterial meningitis each year, according to Jessica MacNeil, an epidemiologist with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Within the past three months, two people in Florida have died from bacterial meningitis. The first was a Coral Reef High School student who died in October. After he died, the Miami-Dade Department of Health spoke with parents and students about symptoms, treatment and prevention.

One month later, a 25-year-old man, also from the Miami-Dade area in southern Florida, died from the same type of infection. The man’s uncle told a local CBS affiliate that hours after the man was discharged from a hospital with a sore throat, his condition worsened. He died on the way back to the hospital.

In September, a man who had visited Columbus, Ohio, died days later from bacterial meningitis. He had traveled on to Pittsburgh, and officials in Ohio had to advise anyone who had come into contact with the man to seek medical attention as a precaution. More than 50 people were reported to have gone to doctors for an examination.

People become infected through close contact with others, their saliva, and mucus from the nose or throat.

“It’s a devastating illness,” Ms. MacNeil said, “but it’s not very contagious.”

Even with treatment, the disease can be deadly because it affects the brain and spinal cord.

The infection is not the same kind of meningitis that’s been linked to the death of more than 30 people across the country and has sickened several hundred. That kind is caused by a fungal infection, which people contracted through contaminated steroid injections.

Ms. MacNeil said typical symptoms of bacterial meningitis include a “high fever, stiff neck, confusion and really bad headaches.”

She recognized that the symptoms are similar to those of a common flu, but the difference is the “really rapid onset” of these indicators.

The Maryland girl became ill on Monday and died a day later, according to school officials.

A letter sent Wednesday from the school’s principal, Vickie Plitt, stated that the hospital treating the young woman had not confirmed the cause of death but “the signs and symptoms the student experienced were consistent” with bacterial meningitis.

Anne Arundel County Public Schools spokesman Bob Mosier said the school system is working with the county’s health department to identify anyone who might have come into close contact with the young woman.

“The health department is contacting those folks individually,” Mr. Mosier said. “That’s the next step from a potential exposure standpoint.”

Dr. Jinlene Chan, the county’s deputy health officer, called the young woman’s death “a tragedy for the family, for the school, and certainly for the community” but said her department’s top priorities were to reassure and protect the community against future outbreaks.

Antibiotics also are recommended for people who have come in contact with a potentially infected person, Dr. Chan said, but she warned that not everyone needs them.

Dr. Chan said the county was still investigating how and when the student fell ill, and officials could only suspect that her cause of death was a bacterial infection.

“There are different kinds of organisms that can get past our defenses,” Dr. Chan said. “It could be bacteria, it could be a virus, or it could be a fungus. Different kinds of organisms cause symptoms, and sometimes the severity depends not only on the type of organism, but the type of person.”

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