Six cases of deadly meningitis have been reported within the past year at the University of Maryland's College Park campus, a Prince George's County Health Department official said yesterday. Three of those with the disease have died, and three others were hospitalized and have recovered.
The latest victim of the disease is Robert Frush, a 36-year-old campus housekeeper, who died June 8.
The incidence of the disease among the 34,000 students and employes at the College Park campus can be computed at a statistical rate of 18 cases per 100,000 population. That is more than six times the normal rate of one to three cases per 100,000, said County Health Services Director Nigel Jackman.
Local and federal health officials say the six cases do not constitute an epidemic.
"The incidence of the disease is higher than expected," Jackman said. "I wouldn't say it's alarming or cause for hysteria, but it's something we'll have to look at."
Jackman said if the meningitis rate rises to 50 or more cases per 100,000, the county "may consider giving students vaccines," but "I hope it doesn't get to 50."
Said College Park campus Chancellor John Slaughter: "Our medical people are keeping an eye on it, and we have determined that no steps have to be taken at this time."
All six victims, five of whom were students, suffered from the same meningococcal type of meningitis, but it was caused by differing strains of bacteria, according to health officials. That means that the victims could not have contracted the disease from one another. Two of the cases apparently involved the same strain, a health official said, but an exhaustive investigation revealed no common links between the two people.
The disease causes inflammation of the membranes covering the brain and spine. A bacterium called Neisseria Meningitidis, which can be found in the nasal passages of 15 to 20 percent of the general population, causes meningococcal meningitis. Kissing and sneezing are the most common ways of spreading the disease.
"None of the cases that we found at the University of Maryland resulted in the secondary spread of the disease," Jackman said. He said he did not know how long the outbreak could be expected to continue.
"When we find a case, we get the names of all contacts" of the patients and treat them with an antibiotic called Rifampin for two days, Jackman said. The antibiotic protects persons in contact with a meningitis patient for the disease's week-long incubation period. Everyone who had close contact with any of the six persons on campus affected by the disease was given the antibiotic, Jackman said.
Dr. Paul Garbey, an epidemiologist for the federal Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta, said the last major outbreak of meningitis in the nation occurred in Chicago in April.
Garbey said no similar outbreaks have been reported in Maryland in the last several years.
The first case at the College Park campus was reported last July, when a graduate student died from the disease. Other students were hospitalized last September, February and April. On April 9, student Renee Servis died shortly after contracting meningococcal meningitis.
Frush, the first non-student on campus to contract the disease, worked for 10 years as a housekeeper at Cole Field House on the College Park campus. The lifelong University Park resident was hospitalized June 3, shortly after a Memorial Day vacation, and died five days later. He suffered from a high fever, kidney failure, internal bleeding and brain swelling.
Of the three major types of meningitis spread by bacteria, Garbey said, the meningococcal strain is most prevalent among college-aged persons. Older victims usually have pneumococcal meningitis, and young children usually contract the H. influenza strain.