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Blood-borne Bacteria Outbreak Hits Ohio

Two students die of disease related to meningitis

TUESDAY, June 5 , 2001 (HealthDayNews) -- More than 35,000 residents of northeastern Ohio have rushed to hospitals and health clinics for antibiotics after two teen-agers died of a contagious disease closely related to meningitis.

Officials fear a third teen may have contracted the same meningococcal infection. She is seriously ill and fighting for her health at a hospital.

Many people panicked, including some who flew over the area in an airplane and worried about getting the disease, says Diana Colaianni, nursing director of the board of health in Mahoning County. "They're as afraid of it as if it's something like Ebola," she says.

In reality, officials say, meningococcal diseases are hard to get. "You have to actually share saliva -- drink out of the same cup, lick the same ice-cream cone, use the same toothbrush or kiss," Colaianni says.

The bacteria also are spread by mucus.

The first victim of the outbreak, Jonathan Stauffer, 15, died on May 23 of a type of Neisseria meningitides that causes blood infection but not meningitis. Another student, Kelly Coblentz, 16, died of the same strain on May 25. They attended the same high school in Beloit, a small community near Youngstown, Ohio.

Another student, Christin Van Camp, 18, was hospitalized Saturday with what appeared to be a similar case. She attends a nearby high school and went to Coblentz's funeral.

That same day, health officials began handing out doses of two antibiotics that can stop the disease if given 24 to 48 hours after exposure.

Distribution stopped Monday because officials thought the drugs would no longer be effective because too much time had passed since any exposure.

Nationwide, about 3,000 meningococcal cases are reported each year, says spokesman Tom Skinner of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Between 10 percent and 15 percent of victims die.

Many people are aware of meningitis, an inflammation of the lining (meninges) of the brain and spinal cord. But it is not a disease in itself, says Randy Hertzer, spokesman for the Ohio Department of Health.

One meningococcal virus does cause meningitis, but the sufferers in Ohio have a blood-borne bacterial variant that causes a kind of toxic shock.

However, "the symptoms are the same," Hertzer says. "You have a very high fever and stiff neck. Some people show a rash on the trunk of the body, disorientation and severe headaches."

Health officials hope to determine today if the third victim has the same meningococcal strain as the first two. If so, officials may call for vaccinations of area students, which could cost up to $500,000 for 10,000 people, Hertzer says.

Vaccinations, which have become more popular for children in recent years, prevent the disease for up to five years, Hertzer says.

However, Colaianni says vaccines don't appear to help people who have already been infected. The vaccination needs seven to 10 days to take effect, she says.

Skinner says local officials around the country launch vaccination campaigns about three or four times a year.

Earlier this year, two high school students in Folsom, Calif., died of a blood-borne meningococcal strain. Last week, 100 students in Lafeyette, another Northern California city, received antibiotics after a chaperone came down with a bacterial meningococcal disease.

What To Do

The most serious kinds of meningococcal infections are rare, but it's always a good idea to avoid sharing utensils, drinking glasses or toothbrushes. Due to their close living quarters, college students are especially prone to becoming sick, but vaccinations are available.

You may have meningococcal germs in your mouth right now. An estimated 10 percent to 25 percent of people do, but it's not clear why they make only some people sick, Colaianni says.

Learn more about diseases that cause meningitis at this community health Web site based in Nova Scotia.

Learn about treatment of infections at the Meningitis Foundation of America.

Also, read previous HealthDay articles on meningitis.

SOURCES: Interviews with Randy Hertzer, spokesman, Ohio Department of Health, Columbus; Diana Colaianni, R.N., nursing director, Mahoning County Board of Health, Youngstown, Ohio; Tom Skinner, spokesman, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Atlanta
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