Loyola offers free vaccinations for meningitis Concern mounts since death Saturday of lacrosse player

March 25, 1997|By David Folkenflik and Diana K. Sugg | David Folkenflik and Diana K. Sugg,Meningitis Research Foundation, KRTSUN STAFF Sun staff writers Jackie Powder, John Rivera and William E. Thompson Jr. contributed to this article.

On advice of public health officials, Loyola College administrators moved last night to address mounting concerns about meningitis-related ailments, offering all students a free vaccination against the bacteria that cause the rare infectious disease.

Vaccinations could begin as early as tomorrow, a college official said, although they take a few weeks to become fully effective.

Loyola students and their parents have swamped campus officials with calls since the death Saturday of Gerry F. Case Jr., a 19-year-old freshman lacrosse player from Annapolis, from a fast-moving meningococcal blood infection. At least one other Loyola student contracted meningitis earlier this year, while another is believed by physicians at the Greater Baltimore Medical Center to have suffered from the same disease. Both recovered after treatment.

"We're being extremely cautious," said Dr. Peter Beilenson, Baltimore's health commissioner. "This is not some Ebola virus. The bacteria does not travel three miles down Cold Spring Lane. You must have close contact."

While trying not to stoke fears of an actual outbreak, college officials sent campus-wide electronic mail and voice mail messages to students last weekend informing them of the incidents and warning them what precautions to take.

Last night, they held a news conference, and later a forum attended by several hundred students, to announce the vaccination offer, which was recommended by city, state and federal health officials.

The college said it would pay for the cost of each vaccination -- approximately $40 to $50 apiece -- for any of its 3,200 students, and also to exposed members of the faculty or staff who are younger than 30 years old. The disease tends to strike children and young adults.

"This is a very serious illness, and we're taking it seriously," said Thomas E. Scheye, the college's provost. "In addition to the clinical side, we're also trying to deal with the very human emotions which are involved in the death of any 18-year-old. In this case, it's an 18-year-old who was a friend and a teammate."

Scheye conceded that the effort was intended as much to calm fears as to combat the disease.

"We are trying to make the case to students that we are taking every step that we can think of," Scheye said yesterday afternoon. "We may be erring on the side of prudence -- of being too conservative -- but that seems to us the better side to err on."

In February, Richard Galasso, a Loyola senior, fell ill with meningitis, but a roommate who recognized the symptoms rushed him to a hospital, and he recovered. A Loyola freshman, Shean Lleuellyn, who played on the same hockey club as Galasso, was also taken to Greater Baltimore Medical Center when he displayed similar symptoms. Although Lleuellyn did not test positive for the disease, GBMC doctors believe he did have it, said Dr. Charles Haile, head of infectious diseases at the hospital.

"This organism can be highly virulent and take a perfectly healthy young man, a lacrosse player, and kill him in a matter of hours," said Dr. Michael Scheld, a professor of medicine at the University of Virginia who is a national expert on meningococcal diseases. "But in the U.S., it's a rare infection."

Concerns about the disease are not limited to the North Baltimore Jesuit campus. A different strain of the disease killed Sheronda Conaway, a 20-year-old junior at Morgan State University, in February.

"People weren't educated about the illness," said Dameon Black, a 19-year-old Morgan State freshman from St. Mary's County. "After we had a [campuswide] meeting with the city health department, that settled things down."

Other campuses have responded, too. Dr. Jane Halpern, Towson State University's director of health services, arranged for a television program educating students about how to avoid the disease to run on the campus cable station. Halpern also plans to meet with members of the men's and women's lacrosse teams, many of whom were friendly with Case.

Officials at Goucher College and the Johns Hopkins University are sending electronic mail to all students describing the disease and offering precautions they can take.

So far this year, state officials have cited 20 cases and two deaths because of meningitis-related diseases in Maryland.

Typically, vaccinations are given only to members of the military and people traveling to areas where meningitis is endemic. Sub-Saharan Africa, for instance, had an outbreak with 150,000 reported cases last year, 15 percent of which were fatal.

The vaccine is highly effective against the strain of meningitis-inducing bacterium that afflicted both Case and Galasso.

Administering the vaccine may take some time. Scheye said campus officials did not expect to have a full supply of the vaccine until tomorrow, and many students were preparing to leave campus for the Easter break.

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