Health experts say meningitis cases declining

The threat of meningococcal disease is present in Oregon with the hospitalization of five children in Multnomah County, a man in McMinnville and the death of a McMinnville teenager.

Bacterial meningitis is a communicable disease present in the mouths and noses of 10 to 15 percent of the population at any given time, according to Jan Poujade, manager of the disease control office of the Multnomah County Health Department. It can be spread by any kind of close contact, as minor as coughing or kissing.

Poujade added that even though the case rate of meningitis in Oregon has gone down over the years, the state’s rate is still slightly higher than the national rate.

“It is the worst communicable disease we deal with,” she said.

Poujade said that the situation in the state is improving. In 2005, there were about 50 reported cases statewide, compared to levels in the hundreds during previous years. She said there have been no cases so far in Multnomah County in 2006.

If a person has meningitis symptoms, which usually consist of a headache, stiff neck, fever and a rash, Poujade said that people should seek medical attention as soon as possible.

Even though this disease is prominent and dangerous, there isn’t much that can be done in Oregon about preventing it.

In college living situations such as in the Ondine, the possibility of an outbreak is always present, but the preparation for it is not easy.

If meningitis were to spread as an epidemic on campus, Mark Bajorek, medical director of the Student Health Center, said that the health center would make sure that signs and symptoms were known around the affected area, possibly by sending someone to educate students about the disease on floors or hallways where the disease had broken out.

“We have to respect the privacy of the individuals affected, but also make everyone aware of the problem,” Bajorek said.

Erica Wallin, a nurse at the Student Health Center, said she would contact Bajorek to first find out how to treat students, and then contact the county to find out what procedures should be implemented.

“Mark would already be telling us what to do before we could even ask,” Wallin said, adding that if a student comes in with a meningitis situation that is even questionable, the student would be sent to a hospital emergency room, where they would be treated with antibiotics, as the hospital is more equipped for those situations.

Those who were merely exposed would likely be treated at the health center.

Bajorek and Poujade said that the nationally recommended vaccine does not cover the state’s most prominent of the various types of the disease, type B. Bajorek said that in other parts of the country, other types are more prominent, making the current vaccine useful.

“A vaccine [for meningitis] is being required by some colleges on the East Coast,” said Poujade. “Oregon is kind of a hot zone. Type B is not covered by the vaccine.”

Bajorek said that Oregon does not require a meningitis vaccine be included with incoming college freshman vaccine requirements because it would have little effect.

“For the folks going to school here, it isn’t cost effective,” he said.

However, Poujade said that the vaccine is still available for around $105.

Even though it may be living in the noses or mouths of many, most people do not get the disease because it will only strike those with weaker immune systems. Poujade said it is usually caught after some kind of respiratory infection or because of smoking.

“The best thing college kids can do is not smoke,” she said.