Woman's meningitis death spurs call for research

Health officials point to rise in incidence

January 14, 2001|By Dennis O'Brien | Dennis O'Brien,SUN STAFF

As relatives yesterday mourned the death from bacterial meningitis of a Towson University junior, health officials said that research is still needed on the disease that kills hundreds each year.

Erica Norton, 20, of Mount Airy, became the third Towson University student in three years to die of the disease and the second student in the Baltimore area to contract the ailment in the past two weeks.

Christopher Taylor, 27, a third-year student at the University of Maryland Medical Center, was listed in fair condition yesterday at the medical center. He was taken by ambulance to Maryland General Hospital Jan. 4 and later transferred.

"It's a disease that's been around for years. What's scarier is that we're seeing more and more cases," said Dr. Jane Halpern, director of the Towson University Health Center.

Halpern said that anyone worried about the possibility of infection should see a physician. A sign hanging at the Towson University health center directed students yesterday to seek treatment at Towson Health Express at 660 Kenilworth Drive.

Halpern and other medical experts say that little is understood about why the disease seems to target certain groups of people, such as children younger than age 5, the elderly and college-age adults.

"I don't think it's really understood. It's very frustrating," said Dr. E. James Britt, a pulmonary critical care specialist at University of Maryland Medical Center.

Experts say bacterial meningitis is spread by contact with saliva from an infected individual through kissing or sharing a drink, cigarette or eating utensil.

Symptoms include fever, severe headache, stiff neck, nausea, vomiting, rash and lethargy.

Maryland health officials reported approximately 30 to 60 cases of bacterial meningitis each year in the 1990s, with as many as one-fifth of the cases resulting in death.

An assistant principal of a city school died of the disease in 1999, and last May, a prisoner at Baltimore's Central Booking and Intake Center was diagnosed with the ailment. More than 300 employees and inmates were then given antibiotics as a precaution.

The Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta estimate that nationally there are about 3,000 meningitis cases each year, resulting in about 300 deaths.

But the CDC also says that fewer than 5 percent - 100 to 125 cases - involve college students each year, with 10 to 15 of those cases resulting in deaths.

And a study published in May 1999 by the Johns Hopkins University and the Maryland Department of Health and Mental Hygiene found that cases of meningitis among Maryland college students living on campus were three times as high as those living off campus.

Experts say living in crowded conditions apparently increases the risk of infection.

"It's living in crowded spaces during the winter season," Britt said. "It's a problem the military has to deal with all the time."

A student at Towson University died in late 1998 and a student at Frostburg University died in 1999.

A month after the death last March 5 of Towson freshman Joseph "Pat" Kepferle, the Maryland General Assembly enacted a law requiring Maryland college students in on-campus dormitories to be vaccinated against the disease or to sign a waiver.

Norton's relatives said last week that she was inoculated against bacterial meningitis.

Health officials said inoculation is not a guarantee that someone will avoid infection. Some strains of the disease resist inoculation, they say.

But Britt said that he had his children inoculated before he sent them to college and Halpern recommended that students be inoculated. The CDC also recommends inoculation.

"Even if it's not 100 percent, it will still reduce your chances" of infection, Halpern said.

Norton shared an off-campus apartment with two roommates at the Glenmont Garden and Tower Apartments on the 6900 block of Lachlan Circle in Towson.

Halpern said about a dozen people were at a party Wednesday night at the apartment.

Halpern said that Baltimore and Carroll county health officials have contacted those at the party to ensure they are seen by a physician and are treated with an antibiotic.

"Were they in danger? Probably very little," Halpern said.

Halpern and other medical experts said the most frightening thing about the disease is the speed with which it can strike.

"It can become very deadly fairly quickly," said Dr. Britt said.

Norton had called her father Thursday morning from Towson and complained of flu-like symptoms.

George T. Norton Jr. took her to the family's physician in Mount Airy. She was admitted about 2 p.m. to Carroll County General Hospital, but died about five hours later, according to an uncle, Jim Norton.

Norton was remembered yesterday as a loving daughter and student who was working toward a career in public relations.

"She was the light of a lot of people's lives," said Stephanie McKew, an aunt.

She was a 1998 graduate of South Carroll High School, where she was president of the French Club and played clarinet.

She attended Carroll Community College for one year before transferring to Towson, where she was studying communications.

A Mass of Christian burial will be offered tomorrow at 10 a.m. at the St. Joseph's Community in Eldersburg.

She is also survived by her mother, Josette C. Norton, and a sister, Denise Christine Norton, both of Mount Airy; her paternal grandparents, George T. Norton Sr. and Helen Norton, both of Hampstead and maternal grandmother, Fortunee Tunney of Arbutus; and numerous aunts, uncles and cousins.

Donations may be made to the Erica M. Norton Memorial Scholarship Fund, in care of Tom O'Brien, 2820 Sommersby Road., Mount Airy 21771.

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