Students' illnesses differed in strains Health officials' actions after death at Morgan questioned

March 26, 1997|By David Folkenflik and Jonathan Bor | David Folkenflik and Jonathan Bor,SUN STAFF

As health officials prepared to start vaccinating the Loyola College student body against meningitis today, questions were being raised as to why similar steps were not taken after a Morgan State University student died of the infectious disease last month.

Health experts, who urged the Loyola vaccinations in the aftermath of the death of a student there, reacted to the Morgan State concern by explaining that the two campuses were beset by different strains of meningitis. Vaccinations at Morgan would not have accomplished anything, health officials said.

During a dinner conversation Monday night with eight Baltimore members of the Maryland General Assembly, Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke was pressed about the seeming disparity in how cases at the two campuses were handled. Schmoke broke off the conversation to consult with the city's health commissioner, Dr. Peter Beilenson, one participant said.

"[Schmoke] stopped and put in a call to Beilenson to make sure" his responses were accurate, said Del. Frank D. Boston Jr., chairman of the city delegation to the Maryland House. "It was put to bed. Everyone accepted what he said as being factual."

The mayor "was letting them know what the city was doing," Schmoke spokesman Clinton R. Coleman said.

Sharonda Conaway, a 20-year-old junior at Morgan State from Fort Washington, died of meningitis without recognized symptoms Feb. 21. Some students who were in close contact with her -- such as teammates on the cheerleading squad -- were given antibiotics to kill the bacteria that cause the disease.

There have been two confirmed cases of infections at Loyola this year from the bacteria that cause meningitis, a rare but contagious disease that generally strikes children and young adults.

Loyola freshman Gerry F. Case Jr. died Saturday from a fast-moving meningococcal blood infection. Another Loyola student was successfully treated for the disease in February. A third Loyola student who showed similar symptoms is also believed by physicians who treated him to have contracted the disease, although he did not test positive for it.

On Monday, Loyola administrators adopted the recommendation of state, federal and local officials to offer inoculations to students, employees and faculty members younger than 30. The college ordered 3,400 doses of the vaccine -- 1,000 of which were scheduled to be flown into Baltimore last night.

Handled differently

That action led some Morgan State students and their families to ask why the incidents at the two campuses -- separated by a mile-and-a-half stretch of Cold Spring Lane in North Baltimore -- were handled differently.

"My problem is the fact they offered vaccine to the entire school [at Loyola] while here only those who had close contact" with Conaway" received treatment, said Morgan State junior Paul Landry, 20.

Public officials and the media, including The Sun, paid closer attention to the disease after it affected the private Jesuit college, several people contended. "Once it hit Loyola, there was more done," said Gloria Gaddy, the mother of a Morgan State student who was a trainer with the cheerleading team.

Conaway contracted the "B" strain of meningitis, while the Loyola students caught the "C" strain of the disease. The meningitis vaccine wards off the "C" strain but not the "B" strain, said Beilenson and a half-dozen health experts interviewed. Also, the single known instance of meningitis at Morgan does not warrant widespread vaccination there, Beilenson said.

Doubt lingers

Yet, some doubt lingers at Morgan State from Conaway's sudden death six weeks ago. On Feb. 24, city health officials met with an anxious, standing-room-only crowd in Morgan State's Carl Murphy Auditorium. The officials explained that the disease was unlikely to be communicated to other students and advised them not to share drinks or eating utensils. Some students, apparently unconvinced, jeered the officials and demanded that they "tell the truth" about the health threat facing the historically black public campus.

Last night, Earl S. Richardson, the president of Morgan State University, said he spoke with Beilenson on Monday to confirm that there was nothing more that should be done for his campus.

"I think we are assured that what we have done is adequate," Richardson said. "We are being very vigilant about it. It's such a mysterious disease and it acts so swiftly."

With the assistance of city and area health officials, Loyola health center staff members plan to start offering the vaccine to students this afternoon at McGuire Hall from noon until 8 p.m. "As soon as we get these things, it's rolling," said Jeanne Lombardi, director of the student health care center.

Vaccinations

The college intends to continue offering the vaccinations, which are voluntary, from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. tomorrow and Tuesday. Under the school calendar, Loyola planned to close its dormitories at noon tomorrow as students left for Easter break. But campus officials said they will allow students to remain to see if they suffer any side effects from the immunization.

The vaccine to be used at Loyola is an injectable serum that contains the outer coats -- or envelopes -- of four separate strains of meningococcal bacteria. It fools the body into mounting an antibody response but is incapable of causing the disease because it contains no infectious material.

Studies have found that the vaccine is 85 percent to 95 percent effective against the meningococcal "C" strain.

The vaccine is made by Pasteur Merieux Connaught, pharmaceutical company in Swiftwater, Pa.

Sun staff writers William E. Thompson and Miranda Walker contributed to this article.

Pub Date: 3/26/97

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