The San Luis Obispo County Public Health Department confirmed they are investigating a possible bacterial meningitis case after a Cuesta College student passed away in a local hospital on Feb. 14.
The student is believed to have been infected somewhere in the San Luis Obispo region. The death prompted the Public Health Department to work with local hospitals, Cuesta College and those who were in close contact with the student to see who may be at risk of infection. Health Officer of the County of San Luis Obispo Penny Borenstein said she is devastated for this loss.
“Our hearts go out to the family, friends and everyone who cared about this young person,” Borenstein said.
Student Affairs sent out a campus-wide health notification sharing the same sentiment.
According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), meningitis is a swelling of the membrane surrounding the brain and spinal cord. Bacterial meningitis is more of a cause for concern because death can happen within a short time after infection. This type of meningitis can be treated with antibiotics if diagnosed early on.
Viral meningitis, which is also common, can be treated naturally by a healthy immune system, and most people have a normal recovery.
There are no recent reported cases of bacterial meningitis at Cal Poly. The last case at Cal Poly was in 2017, when two students contracted the disease from attending social events.
Bacterial meningitis can spread easily through bodily fluid. Borenstein said this makes it easy for the bacteria to spread in an environment like a college campus where students are in close proximity and are most likely to share food and drinks with each other. She added that as much as 10 percent of the population carries the organism already.
“It is not known why people don’t get sick who have it,” Borenstein said. “Those who have never been exposed to the disease are the ones who get sick.”
According to the Public Health Department, symptoms of bacterial meningitis include sudden fever, headache and a stiff neck. The symptoms are very similar to the flu and will often cause vomiting, nausea, rash, confusion and increased sensitivity to light.
Health officials said to help prevent infection avoid sharing drinks, food, cigarettes or anything that can allow for the transfer of bodily fluids. This includes being weary of coughing.
The university advises students who may be experiencing meningitis symptoms to seek help.
Two types of vaccines are available, and the CDC recommends those who are of high school or college age to get at least one shot in the three-shot series. These vaccines are available at the Public Health Department, pharmacies or through any personal physician.
Borenstein also said bacterial meningitis’ immediate and devastating impact is why the disease makes headlines more than similar diseases like the flu.
“Meningitis can lead to rapid, awful consequences,” Borenstein said. “So it gets noticed.”