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Meningitis Diagnosis and Treatment

A Bentley College student died from a strain of bacterial meningitis last October, despite the fact that all students in Massachusetts are required to receive the meningitis vaccination prior to beginning their first year of college.

Erin Ortiz, a freshman at Bentley, began to feel ill while visiting her family in New York and was pronounced dead in a hospital just 36 hours later. According to a Bentley spokesman, Ortiz’s father believes that she may have mistaken her symptoms for those of a cold or the flu because she had already received the meningitis vaccination.

Although meningitis is a relatively rare disease, Ortiz’s death is sparking concern among college officials across the United States, as many states require college students to receive the vaccination, but it does not protect against a few potentially deadly strains of bacterial meningitis. An average 3,000 Americans will be infected with meningitis each year, and about 300 of them will die from the disease. The majority of people who contract meningitis are under the age of 25, and most of them attend high school or college.

Meningitis causes an inflammation of the coverings of the brain and spinal cord, and it comes in two forms: viral and bacterial. Viral meningitis is more common and usually is not deadly, but bacterial meningitis is very rare and can cause death or significant brain damage if not treated immediately. One in five people who survive bacterial meningitis will experience permanent brain damage or hearing loss. The disease is typically acquired by coming into contact with the saliva of an infected person after a sneeze or cough, but can also be caught by kissing or sharing drinks with an infected person. One of the reasons why bacterial meningitis can be deadly is because it is extremely hard to diagnose in its early stages.

Symptoms of bacterial meningitis are very similar to those of the flu or a cold, such as vomiting, fever, and headaches. However, the disease does have specific symptoms that are easier to notice, such as a stiff neck that can be painful when trying to look down, and extreme exhaustion to the point where one can barely open his or her eyes.

The Department of Health encourages any student who believes that he or she may be infected with meningitis to seek help as quickly as possible. The only way to determine whether or not a person has the disease is to withdraw fluid from the spine in a procedure called a lumbar puncture (commonly referred to as a spinal tap). All persons who are diagnosed with bacterial meningitis receive antibiotic treatment in the hospital, and are carefully monitored in an effort to reduce their chances of having seizures or brain damage.