Living in close quarters, like dorms, increases meningitis risk

Living in close quarters, like dorms, increases meningitis risk

PORTLAND, Ore. – A rare but serious disease took the life of a University of Oregon student last Friday evening, but there are steps college students can take to decrease their risk.

Lillian Pagenstecher, who grew up in Portland, died of bacterial meningitis, or meningococcal disease, and it only took a few days to turn deadly.

There is a vaccine that can be 80 to 90 percent effective for most strains of the disease. It's recommended that teenagers receive the vaccine within five years of going to college, especially if they will be living in tight quarters like a dorm or sorority house. The bacteria can spread through saliva or a lot of close contact.

Pagenstecher, 21, lived in a sorority house at the U of O, and was a junior. That school does not require the vaccine but recommends it. Health officials confirmed she died from a strain that would have been covered by the vaccine. But it isn’t known if she received it.

Her father said she also had the disease as a freshman in 2009 and had a genetic disorder. While she fought off the 2009 infection, she remained at risk because of a genetic protein deficiency.

Dr. Paul Cieslak, the medical director at the Oregon Immunization Program, said getting it twice is rare but not impossible.

"When somebody gets meningococcal disease twice, it often indicates that they have a little gap in their immune system that's not able to fight off the infection," he said.

In the state of Oregon there have been 15 cases of the disease so far this year. In 2011 there were 31 in the state, which is only one for every 124,000 people. And the number of cases, for the most part, has gone down over the last two decades.

Once someone is infected, they need to get medical attention immediately.

"It's one of those diseases that can take a perfectly healthy person and within 24 hours, be fatal," Cieslak said. "It gets into the blood stream, and into the spinal fluid, and if antibiotics aren't given very promptly, it's rapidly fatal."

Symptoms include fever, severe headache and a stiff neck. Those can be accompanied by nausea or vomiting, sensitivity to light and confusion. If bacteria get into the bloodstream, it can also cause a rash.

Those at highest risk are infants and then young adults 16 to 21 years old living in close quarters, Cieslak said. Doctors say it's a good idea for them to get the vaccine.

The University of Oregon is giving antibiotics to 150 people who may have been exposed to the disease at the school.

Pagenstecher graduated from Lincoln High School in 2009.

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