Meningitis – deadly but preventable

Published 12:00 am Saturday, March 3, 2001


LAPLACE – Seventeen-year-old Stephanie Wilking of LaPlace died Tuesday afternoon of meningitis. The sudden loss of a teen-ager dedicated to helping others, as she founded Kids for Kops and was instrumental in getting bullet-proof vests for St. John officers, came as a severe shock to the community. It also sparked questions about the disease that took Wilking’s life. According to Dr. Christy Montegut, St. John Parish Coroner, Wilking died from Neisseria Meningitidis, which causes meningococcal disease. Carried by a certain percentage of the population, N. meningitidis usually does not harm carriers. Montegut said it rarelywill invade the body and attack. “It is very lethal, causing death within a matter of hours,” he said. “When it strikes, it is very deadly.” The Center for Disease Control and Prevention states that the organism called meningococcus, found in nasal and oral secretions, is most commonly transmitted through close personal contact such as sharing drinking utensils. They state that most people who become infected simply carry the organism harmlessly, without illness, and develop an immunity to it within a short time. At any one time, it is estimated around 10 percent of the population carries meningococcus without illness or symptoms. According to Montegut, it is only in extremely rare cases that it overwhelms the body. Such cases usually occur in young, healthy people, he said. N. meningitidis is seasonal, said Montegut, meaning springtime has the highest amount of incidence. “We still don’t fully understand it,” Montegut said. “There are no real obvious warning signs, other than flu-like symptoms when it is usually too late. It’s devastating when it strikes.” According to Montegut, it has been found on college campuses, which is why it is recommended that students living in dormitories receive the vaccination. When a person does develop illness from the organism meningococcal symptoms such as fever, headache, stiff neck, rash or vomiting may occur. If those symptoms are present, the person should seek medical help immediately. Some ways to prevent meningococcal disease are to avoid sharing drinking utensils, to wash hands frequently and to avoid factors that are known to compromise the immune system such as excessive alcohol consumption and lack of sleep. There is a vaccine available called Meningococcal polysaccharide vaccine, which is freeze-dried and contains four strains of the bacteria. One dose will last about three years. There are side effects, and some people should not take the vaccine. Contact your family provider for more information, Montegut recommended.