CORVALLIS, Ore. – Officials with the Benton County Health Department have confirmed that one student at Corvallis High School has been diagnosed with meningococcal disease, a bacterial form of meningitis: a rare and sometimes deadly illness.
The Corvallis School District is not releasing the name, age, or gender of the student, who has been hospitalized at Good Samaritan Regional Medical Center in Corvallis since Sunday.
The health department is unsure how the student contracted the illness, but doctors say about 10 percent of the population carries the bacteria in their nasal or throat passages.
“Meningococcal is a very scary disease,” said Charlie Fautin, Deputy Director at the Benton County Health Department. “Even though it’s very rare, it strikes very fast; it tends to strike healthy, young adults.”
Fautin says the bacteria itself is not unusual, but actually contracting the illness is. He says high risk areas include dorm rooms or areas where people are living in close quarters with each other. He says other risk factors are sharing water bottles, eating utensils, or being intimate with someone.
“It takes really close contact,” he said. “Someone has to be face-to-face with a person in very close contact for several hours.”
But Fautin says the infected student did not necessarily get it from someone else who was infected.
“It’s possible that this person had been carrying it for years; it’s possible they picked it up from someone else,” Fautin said. “But it’s something that’s out in the environment all the time. It’s difficult to transmit – even from a person who does develop an infection. So a lot of people carry it but don’t become infected with it. They’re just carriers.”
Health officials say no one close to the student is showing signs of the illness. The health department is working with the hospital and Corvallis School District to identify anyone close to the student who could have contracted it. Several people are taking preventative antibiotics just in case.
Despite the seriousness of the disease, Fautin says it is not very contagious. The health department says parents of children at Corvallis High should not panic because the chances of an outbreak are small.
“Parents should be vigilant but not alarmed,” he said. “The opportunities or chances for spread of this particular infection are very small.”
The school district is also working with families to make sure everyone is aware of the situation.
“Our priority is to educate our students around what this is; what signs to look for,” said Assistant Superintendent Kevin Bogatin. “It certainly is serious and we want people to take this very seriously, so our purpose right now is to educate our families across the district.”
The health department says symptoms include a rapid onset body rash, stiff neck, high fever, and headache. Fautin says anyone who has symptoms of the disease should seek medical treatment immediately.
The health department encourages teens and young adults to get vaccinated, especially if they are living in close quarters with others, such as dorm rooms.
“Unfortunately it does not cover the strain that is most common in Oregon,” Fautin said. “We don’t know the strain of this patient yet – that laboratory test is still pending.”
Fautin says the vaccination covers the most common strains of meningococcal disease that occur east of the Mississippi River, but could still appear in Oregon. He says the vaccine is widely available.