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Meningococcal disease suspected in student death

January 14, 2011

The Jan. 13 death of a 24-year-old University of Wisconsin–Madison student is being investigated as probable meningococcal disease, public health officials tell University Health Services (UHS).

“We are very sad to learn of the sudden loss of one of our students,” says Sarah Van Orman, M.D., executive director of UHS. “However, there is no reason to believe this case presents a health risk to the UW–Madison community.”

In any case where meningococcal disease is suspected in a student, Public Health Madison Dane County (PHMDC) notifies the university, says UHS epidemiologist Craig Roberts. UHS coordinates with officials from PHMDC and will continue to closely monitor the situation.

Following university practice, the student’s name is not currently being released to respect the privacy of his family.

Meningococcal disease is a rare and serious bacterial infection that can cause very grave illness or death, and requires early diagnosis and treatment.

It does not persist on surfaces in the environment, and no special cleaning procedures are needed in classrooms or other locations where the person may have been.

The bacteria are spread only through intimate and direct contact with an infected person’s oral or nasal secretions. As a precaution, antibiotic prophylaxis may be recommended for persons, such as roommates, who have had extremely close contact with a person’s oral secretions, such as by sharing cups and utensils.

In such cases, in addition to coordinating the campus public health response, UHS also assists people who may be affected by the student’s illness, says Van Orman: “Whether that consists of grief counseling, or answering questions of students who may be concerned about their health, we do whatever we can.”

Bacterial meningococcal disease is an inflammation of the lining surrounding the brain and spinal cord, and is typically treated with antibiotics.

Symptoms of meningococcal disease typically include a fever greater than 101 degrees and a severe, sudden headache accompanied by changes in mental status (such as confusion, disorientation), neck or back stiffness, and rashes.

For more information about meningococcal disease, visit

Students who are concerned about their health or who are interested in speaking to counselors from UHS Counseling and Consultation Services are encouraged to call UHS at 608-265-5600.