A health alert email sent out on Sunday notified campus that one student, Courtney Washington ’12, has contracted bacterial meningococcal disease, a severe bacterial infection of the bloodstream or other fluids around the brain and spinal cord. On Saturday evening, February 12, she was taken to Canton-Potsdam Hospital, and then transported to Fletcher Allen Hospital in Burlington, VT.
The infection is considered very serious and can be fatal, although its level of contagiousness is less severe. Because the infection is bacterial, it needs to remain inside the body to survive — unlike a virus, it cannot lay dormant on inanimate objects, it also means that it can be easily treated with an antibiotic. Patricia Ellis, Director of Health and Counseling, said that approximately 40-50 students have come in for a screening, but less than 20 have required treatment.
According to Ellis, meningitis is far more dangerous than the last infectious outbreak that threatened campus, swine flu, and the difference in campus reaction stems from a few major distinctions. Swine flu, which threatened campus in the fall semester of 2009, was a viral infection and did not need to remain inside the body to survive. Therefore, it was much more easily spread through residence halls, classrooms and primary campus buildings. The heightened response that health officials took for swine flu focused on the large number of infected students, a result of the virus’ higher level of contagiousness. Also, at the time of the outbreak, many health care professionals were unsure of the expected strength of the virus. “With H1N1, the mortality rate was unknown at first, but now we know it to be not as bad as initial predictions,” Ellis said. Also, the outbreak was on a much larger scale, there were many more reported and confirmed cases, as opposed to only one individual outbreak of meningitis so far.
While the level of danger surrounding a meningitis infection is very high (the mortality rate is 17-18%, Ellis said) the bacterial infection can be easily treated with an antibiotic pill. It is not a prescription, just one pill, but it is not 100% effective. However, she said, “In my experience, only 1 out 10 patients with an untreated infection will survive the intensive care unit.” This does not take into consideration the difference between mortality and morbidity, though. Morbidity refers to a patient that is severely paralyzed and mortality refers to a deceased patient.
The last time a meningitis infection appeared on campus was in the 80’s and the situation was different. According to Ellis, the individual had been to a party recently and reports said that she was kissing, as well as sharing cigarettes and drinks with multiple people.
Because of HIPAA Laws, Ellis is unable to comment on Washington’s condition, although she said, “You could make a good guess, though, based on the fact she is still alive.” Washington’s roommate, Meredith Wilkes ’12, confirmed this. “She’s doing much better, she was out of the ICU by Tuesday, and should be going home this weekend,” Because of her vicinity to Washington, Wilkes was treated for the infection, as was Washington’s sister, who was visiting for the weekend.
There is a vaccine available for bacterial meningitis, and students entering St. Lawrence and any other higher education facilities in New York State are required to read information on the infection and sign a waiver. According to Wilkes, Washington had been vaccinated. Ellis said that the vaccination protects from a majority of infection strains, but not all of them. It is likely that Washington contracted some rare form of the infection, but Ellis said that she won’t be sure until lab tests return from a medical center in Albany, which may take months.
Ellis encouraged students with questions to come forward, or seek additional information that is available on the health center website. There is not a practical test for meningitis because a spinal tap is very intrusive, but the health center is open additional hours to answer questions, provide screenings and offer more information. Ellis said, “We are hoping the infection is contained, the incubation period takes up to two weeks, though.” It is not too early for another instance to develop, but after two weeks, it is likely that no there will be no other cases.
The initial email claims that only a small number of students may be at risk, but asks that any and all campus residents who believe they may have had close contact with Washington to come forward for a screening at the Dianna B. Torrey Health Center.