A DEATH FROM meningococcal disease is a little like a plane crash. Statistics show the odds of such tragedies are extremely small, but when they happen the sudden devastation makes it hard to be rational.
On Friday, a Loyola College junior died from a meningococcal infection of the blood, five weeks after a fellow Loyola student became ill from the same type of bacteria. Since then, the college has faced the tricky task of stemming panic while following doctors' advice regarding antibiotics and vaccines.
Both Loyola and Morgan State University -- where a cheerleader recently died from meningitis -- have done an admirable job responding to students and following city, state and federal health authorities.
The authorities agree that the Baltimore area (with 11 cases this year) is not in the midst of an epidemic. None of the previous 10 cases is related. And while they are concerned that the Loyola cases were caused by the same type of bacteria, they stress that danger of infection is virtually nil for most students, and slight for those who may have shared mouth or nose secretions with the dead student and were not treated with antibiotics. They note, too, that the four-day incubation period has passed.
Some students were frustrated because the college did not provide antibiotics to all who asked. But doctors say antibiotics must be restricted to those with direct contact with an infected patient because the bacteria easily become resistant. The spread of resistant bacteria could threaten whole communities.
Doctors also say the college was right to wait until tests came back late Monday to begin vaccinations. Some types of the disease do not respond to vaccination. Moreover, the Centers for Disease Control do not recommend shots unless a single strain, Type C in this case, has recurred in a small, closed population.
Those considering vaccinations for children and college students -- susceptible because dorms, day care centers and classrooms are close quarters -- should realize the shot protects for only four years. Ultimately, doctors say, the disease is best prevented through good hygiene, by not sharing eating and drinking utensils and by not smoking, which facilitates activation or transmission of the bacteria.
Pub Date: 3/26/97