Risk of meningitis spread low, Morgan State audience told Officials try to calm fears after death of cheerleader

February 25, 1997|By William E. Thompson Jr. | William E. Thompson Jr.,SUN STAFF

City health officials told an anxious audience of Morgan State University students and staff members yesterday that there is a very low risk of their contracting bacterial meningitis after the death of Sheronda Conaway, a 20-year-old student and cheerleader who died of the disease Friday.

Richard Dunning, the city's acting assistant commissioner for preventive medicine, said there was little chance the disease would spread across the campus, because it is contracted through close, "saliva-type" contact.

That includes kissing, coming into contact with an infected person's cough or sneeze, or using the same glass as someone who is infected.

To contract the disease, he said, "droplets would have to go into your mouth." The bacteria that infected Conaway exist everywhere and could have come from anyone in any community with whom she came into contact, he said. Healthy people can be "carriers" of the disease without becoming infected or exhibiting symptoms, he said.

Dunning said Conaway's death was caused when the disease spread from her throat to her bloodstream, a rare occurrence.

"People get unnecessarily concerned when they hear certain words," he said, adding that he wanted to dispel "the misconception that it extends to every person in the room," he said.

A large segment of the audience remained unconvinced throughout most of the meeting with health officials at the Carl Murphy Auditorium. They often jeered the officials' remarks and demanded that they and campus officials "tell the truth" about the potential threat.

Recardo Perry, Morgan's vice president for student affairs, said about 40 people who had been in close contact with Conaway -- including her boyfriend, a campus maintenance worker who performed cardiopulmonary resuscitation on her, and the cheerleading squad -- were taken to hospitals as a preventive measure. The university reported that all of them tested negative.

Dunning said they were treated with antibiotics as a precaution and were warned of the symptoms of the disease.

Symptoms include a severe headache, a stiff neck, extended flulike symptoms and a high fever, all of which usually appear in three or four days, he said.

A spokesman for Mercy Medical Center said 10 police officers and six firefighters who responded after Conaway was found dead were also tested. He said those test results were not available.

When several students asked why more wasn't being done to protect the community, Dunning said there is no conclusive test to determine infection. Health officials usually react conservatively until they are sure what strain of disease they are dealing with, he said.

Pub Date: 2/25/97

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