Meningitis caused freshman's death

Towson students worried about illness get antibiotics

March 07, 2000|By Dan Thanh Dang | Dan Thanh Dang,SUN STAFF

As Baltimore County Health Department officials announced that an 18-year-old Towson University freshman died of meningitis over the weekend, more than a hundred concerned students lined up at the college health center yesterday for treatment against possible infection.

Tests at St. Joseph Medical Center proved that Joseph "Pat" Kepferle, a freshman from St. Mary's County, died Sunday of a blood infection caused by the meningococcal bacterium, according to health officials.

Towson officials quickly spread word of his death through e-mail, fliers and telephone calls to friends who might have shared a drinking glass, cigarette or silverware with Kepferle at parties he attended during the past 10 days.

Baltimore County health officials are working closely with St. Mary's County Health Department to treat people there who might have come in contact with Kepferle, who went home Friday to Lexington Park to attend a basketball game and party with high school friends. The bacteria is spread through the exchange of saliva and nasal secretions, health officials said.

"I think we have all the bases covered, but we are urging anyone who might have come into contact and shared anything with him to get checked out," said Dr. Barbara McLean, a physician with the Health Department's communicable disease section. "Anyone recognizing any symptoms of meningitis in themselves should get to a hospital or contact their physician as quickly as possible."

Meningitis symptoms include a high fever, severe headaches, neck stiffness, confusion, nausea, vomiting and a reddish-purple rash. Doctors said that when Kepferle was admitted, he felt weak, had a 106-degree temperature and a rash.

"He was able to talk at the hospital when he arrived," said Dr. James Kleeman, vice president of medical affairs at St. Joseph. "He was groggy. He was treated with antibiotics, but his condition deteriorated rapidly."

Last year, the Health Department documented 55 cases of meningitis in Maryland, 11 of which resulted in death.

In 1998, a Towson freshman contracted meningitis, but the female student did not die, health officials said.

After a Health Department study showed that on-campus college students are three times more likely to contract the disease than off-campus students, state legislators introduced a bill this year, which is pending, requiring that Maryland college students living in on-campus dorms be vaccinated against meningococcal disease or sign a waiver.

A hearing on the bill before a state Senate committee is scheduled for today.

According to campus officials and friends, Kepferle went home Friday night to visit his family and high school friends in St. Mary's County.

While there, Kepferle attended a basketball game Friday night and spent time with high school friends Saturday.

Later that evening, his parents took him back to campus and had dinner with him, school officials said.

Kepferle, a theater major who was staying temporarily with friends in Towson's Tower D dormitory, did not mention feeling poorly, friends said.

"I shared a cigarette with him and drinks at a bar on Saturday," said Samantha Fox, 19, a Towson freshman. "We were just having a good time. Everyone is just in shock."

"He awoke Sunday not feeling well and went back to bed," said Jane Halpern, director of Towson's Dowell Health Center. "He became progressively more ill throughout the day until friends, who were worried about him, took him to [St. Joseph]. Once the bacteria gets into the blood stream, it can progress extremely rapidly."

Doctors say the bacterium causes the body's system to fail as the kidneys and liver shut down and fluid fills the lungs and the sac around the heart.

Three hours after he was admitted, Kepferle was pronounced dead at the hospital, Halpern said. Further blood tests will determine what strain of the bacteria Kepferle contracted, Halpern said.

Last fall, Towson University offered a meningococcal vaccine at the health center, but it was unclear how many students took advantage of it. The vaccine takes 10 to 14 days to take effect and protects against four of the most common types of meningitis.

Yesterday, dozens of students -- including many members of Kepferle's Kappa Sigma fraternity -- showed up at the health center for an antibiotic pill to kill the bacteria quickly.

Students packed the center's waiting room and stood outside to fill out a questionnaire and receive a dose of the drug Cipro or Rifampin.

Many were worried about possible contact with Kepferle at a Kappa Sigma party Feb. 26 at his fraternity brothers' residence at The Colony at Kenilworth apartments.

For four hours, friends said, they partied to loud music and free-flowing drinks with about 70 to 80 people.

Kepferle used cups at the apartment and shared his drinks and cigarettes with friends, said Josh Dunivant, 20, a junior who threw the party with roommate and fraternity brother, Shawn Hogrebe.

Both Dunivant and Hogrebe, who were awaiting their doses of antibiotics, remembered Kepferle as a friendly young man who enjoyed making people laugh and composing freestyle rap.

"We're still in shock," Hogrebe said. "He was a great guy. We're also worried. I'm 20 years old -- the last thing I want to think about is death right now."

Students who want treatment when the health center is closed can go to Towson Health Express, St. Joseph urgent care center, 660 Kenilworth Drive.

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