State officials issue meningitis warning Residents urged to watch for signs of the illness

March 05, 1997|By Diana K. Sugg | Diana K. Sugg,SUN STAFF

State health officials are warning Maryland residents to be on the alert for symptoms of meningitis and related illnesses that can kill.

The signs -- high fever, severe headache, stiff neck and vomiting -- are among the most common symptoms of various illnesses. But together with a rash of tiny dots that become bruises, they constitute a much more serious condition.

In January and February, 15 cases of meningococcal disease were reported statewide, compared with 11 during the same period last year. Two of the patients, including a student at Morgan State University, died.

But this increase in cases means little because the number of cases often fluctuates, and the doctors who track them have found no link among them, said Dr. Diane Dwyer, epidemiologist at the state Department of Health and Mental Hygiene.

She stressed that people with these symptoms should make sure they are evaluated by a physician.

About 5 percent to 20 percent of people carry the bacterium, called Neisseria meningitidis, but have no symptoms. These people can pass the bacteria to others they are in close contact with through secretions of the nose and mouth.

The bacteria is transmitted through saliva -- for example, by kissing, or sharing a cup, utensils or a cigarette. "It's not spread through casual contact. It's not like catching a cold or flu," said Dr. Michelle Leverett, Baltimore County's health officer.

About one in 100,000 people -- or roughly 3,000 nationwide each year -- who get the bacteria will develop a meningococcal disease, including infections of the joints and blood. Meningitis is the result when the brain covering gets infected and inflamed. In patients sensitive to the bacterium, its coating is a potent toxin that can lead to leaky and dilated blood vessels and low blood pressure.

Some patients will die within hours, and roughly 10 percent of all cases are fatal.

Last month, Sheronda Conaway, 20, a junior cheerleader at Morgan State, died in her dorm room of meningitis. Another college student, Loyola College senior Richard Galasso, 21, came down with the illness, but a roommate familiar with the symptoms got Galasso to the hospital quickly, possibly saving his life.

A student from Milford Mill Academy in Baltimore County was also believed to have had the disease.

But because the student was given antibiotics before a test was done, her diagnosis was unclear.

Pub Date: 3/05/97

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