Past deaths are why UO is on high alert for meningitis

When the University Oregon Health Center learned that another student had contracted a meningitis-causing bacteria (its scientific name is meningococcemia) Feb. 3, the staff dropped all afternoon plans.

The call came at 2:45 p.m., and by 3:30 p.m. the Health Center Director Michael Eyster met with UO’s Office of Emergency Management and Lane County Public Health.

The trio used names provided by the university registrar to determine those at risk for infection: anyone who had shared food, cups or even just air with the infected student in the four hours before she was transported to a local hospital for treatment. By the time the Health Center closed at 5 p.m., all 400 at risk received antibiotics.

Two hours later university officials handed out antibiotics at Earl Hall, where the student lived. The university also texted 1,200 of her classmates and peers.

Eyster said that swift damage control is a necessity for the university because of what has happened in the past.

Meningitis and its related bacteria have a destructive history at the university. Two students have died of it, one in 2001 and the other in 2012.

The first time the disease hit the university, the health center didn’t take it seriously.

Freshman Jill Dieringer showed up at the health center in 2001 complaining of a sore throat. Nurses thought it was a cold and sent her back to her residence hall, not realizing she had an early symptom of meningococcemia.

Dieringer checked into Sacred Heart Medical Center the next day with a severe headache and a fever. The doctors at Sacred Heart Medical Center allegedly didn’t diagnose her symptoms until it was too late and failed to prescribe antibiotics in time. Dieringer died about a day after she had been admitted.

The most recent meningococcemia-related death at UO was that of senior Lill Pagenstecher in 2012, a Chi Omega sister. Her death shook her sorority and the university at large, prompting an outpouring of condolences on social media and a candlelight vigil.

“One of the really dangerous things about meningitis is it also moves so quickly,” Eyster said. “Everyone knows our roles and what we need to do.”

After 2012, there were no more cases of meningitis until this year. Then, on Jan. 16, a student was hospitalized with meningitis again, and another was hospitalized a few weeks later.

What’s especially troubling about the recent cases is that they occurred so close to each other. Seven days after after a student contracted meningococcemia on Jan. 16, Lane County Public Health believed they were past the point of danger.

Meningitis has a seven day incubation period in which the symptoms manifest, health official Jason Davis said. Thus, if seven days pass and no one else has been diagnosed, it’s reasonable to believe the university community is safe.

Not even three weeks later, however, a second case appeared.

Neither the university nor Lane County Public Health know if the two are connected.

“Lab tests that are being conducted right now,” Eyster said. “We will know that.”

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Scott Greenstone

Scott Greenstone

Rehabilitated ex-homeschooler, former Emerald Senior News Editor, editor-in-chief of The Broadside at Central Oregon Community College, and freelance blogger for Barnes and Noble.

Now I write campus politics. Easy conversation starters include Adventure Time, Terry Pratchett novels and Arcade Fire.