Loyola tries to allay students' concerns Treatment, counseling offered in wake of meningococcal death

March 24, 1997|By Will Englund | Will Englund,SUN STAFF Sun staff writers Cheryl Tan, Scott Shane and Jamison Hensley contributed to this article.

Loyola College officials took on the difficult job yesterday of trying to explain to uneasy students what can and cannot be done to ensure their health after the death over the weekend of a freshman from a meningococcal infection.

The health center was open all day to provide counseling as well as treatment for those who might have had direct contact with the dead student, Gerry Case, before he was hospitalized Friday morning. An open campus meeting was held last night to try to allay students' concerns.

Yet as word got around the North Baltimore campus yesterday, many were wondering if the college was doing enough. Case, 19, was the second Loyola student to contract a meningococcal infection this year.

"My attitude was, 'Oh, this is serious but definitely treatable,' " said Kristin Lacey, 21, a senior from Media, Pa. "Now I definitely think it'll make people realize how serious the situation is."

"I don't understand what's going on here. It's just a scary thing," said Thomas Peveraro, 20, a junior from New York who lives in Case's dormitory, Wynnewood Tower. "It's too bad it takes something like this -- you know what I mean -- to take some steps."

"They're just telling us about it. But they're not doing anything about it," said James Bell, 20, a junior from Villanova, Pa., who also lives in Wynnewood.

That was the bind that Loyola officials felt themselves to be in yesterday. Despite the two cases that have struck Loyola this year, meningococcal diseases are rare and there isn't very much that health workers can do to prevent them.

People who have already been infected can take an antibiotic, but it's not a useful preventive. A vaccine can be administered, but it only covers one strain of the meningococcal bacteria.

And until the results of tests on Case come back, perhaps today, health officials won't know which strain had infected him, and whether vaccines would do any good, anyway.

So, for now, Loyola officials are telling students to eat well, rest and avoid unsanitary practices.

"There is no way we can make this community invulnerable to this disease," Provost Thomas Scheye told about 500 students who gathered at McGuire Hall last night. "That's the horrible truth."

When students asked why the college wasn't administering the antibiotics to everyone, and vaccinating everyone, to be safe, Dr. Oscar Taube, Loyola's consulting physician, replied there's always a risk with antibiotics and vaccination, and neither is foolproof.

The college health center was nevertheless providing single doses of the antibiotic ciprofloxacin to students who might have had some direct contact with Case, a varsity lacrosse player, said the center's director, Jeanne Lombardi. As of late yesterday, it had dispensed the medicine to about 80 students, she said.

Among them was every member of the lacrosse team.

But the health center was trying not to give the antibiotic to everyone who came by, limiting it to those at risk. This is in line with actions taken by other colleges in recent outbreaks of the disease.

Coach Dave Cottle said the lacrosse team met at noon yesterday and talked with a health center representative, a priest, the provost and a school counselor.

Meningococcal infections are on the rise among college students, for reasons that are not completely clear.

The most common such infection is meningitis, which is an inflammation of the covering of the brain and spinal cord. Case died Saturday night of a variant called meningococcemia, an infection of the blood.

Outbreaks of meningococcal disease among young adults have become more common over the past decade, said Dr. MarJeanne Collins, director of the student health service at the University of Pennsylvania.

"The concern is it's still fatal in about 12 percent of cases in the best of hands, even though it can be treated with antibiotics," said Collins, who heads an American College Health Association task force on diseases preventable by vaccine. "It's a very virulent disease, and it moves fast,"

She said there have been an unusual number of cases in the mid-Atlantic region this year.

In January and February, there were 15 cases of meningococcal disease in Maryland. Two people, including a Morgan State University cheerleader, have died.

Since Loyola alerted students and faculty Friday that there had been a second outbreak, the health center has fielded hundreds of calls, Lombardi said.

"Parents need not be overly concerned at this point," said Loyola spokesman Mark Kelly. "The disease is not easily transmitted -- but it is incredibly fast-acting."

Two cases in five weeks does not meet the definition of an epidemic as determined by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, he said. Though the college is not recommending vaccination, he said, parents might want to confer with their personal physicians.

"It's a tough call," Kelly said.

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