Meningitis keeps athlete in critical state; no new cases reported among students

A University student who was hospitalized with meningitis last week is still in critical condition, Fairview-University Medical Center spokespersons said Monday.
Mariam Pourshoushtari, a sophomore journalism major and varsity gymnast, is being treated at Fairview-University for meningococcal meningitis, said Jean Tracy, a hospital spokeswoman. The contagious disease is a potentially deadly bacterial inflammation of brain and spinal cord membranes.
Critical condition means vital signs are unstable, major complications are involved and death might be imminent.
No other cases on campus have developed, but about 30 to 40 people who might have had contact with Pourshoushtari are receiving antibiotics as a preventive measure, said David Golden, Boynton Health Services director of public health.
“I think the greatest risk has passed, but were not out of the woods totally,” said Dr. Ed Ehlinger, director of Boynton Health Services.
Pourshoushtari became ill on June 6, and went to the emergency room of the medical center, Ehlinger said. Her condition worsened rapidly.
Officials at Boynton Health Services were informed that Pourshoushtari had been diagnosed with meningococcal meningitis on June 8. This is the first case in at least a decade of which University officials have been aware.
In conjunction with the president’s office, Boynton officials warned all undergraduate students on the Twin Cities campus by e-mail of possible risk of infection.
“We became concerned about the broader population because meningitis is a communicable disease,” Ehlinger said.
All people believed to be at risk — including those in Pourshoushtari’s classes — have been contacted, officials said.
“We think that the first containment effort has been successful,” Golden said.
Meningococcal meningitis is spread through exposure to saliva, including kissing, sharing eating utensils and drinking containers.
Hospital officials were unsure how Pourshoushtari contracted the disease.
Because meningitis is often spread by carriers who are unaware they are infected, it is difficult to trace its origins.
About 15 percent of the population carries the bacteria at any given time, but do not contract the disease, said Buddy Ferguson, public information officer at the Minnesota Department of Health.
Those with weakened immune systems, or those who contract a more virulent strain might be more likely to contract meningitis, Ferguson said.
Even though the meningococcal bacteria is constantly in the population, the disease is rare, with only 30 to 40 sporadic cases in Minnesota each year, Ehlinger said.
Epidemics are even rarer. However, the strain of meningitis most commonly associated with outbreak might be on the rise, Ferguson said.
The last epidemics of meningitis in Minnesota occurred earlier this year in Duluth, and in Mankato in 1995.
The first person diagnosed in Mankato was also a student-athlete. That is probably a coincidence, Ferguson said, although people under 30 years old are at greater risk to contract this strain of meningitis. Medical researchers don’t yet know why.
A study published recently in the Journal of the American Medical Association found that the risk of developing bacterial meningitis is higher among students living on campus.
The study found that about 3.24 cases developed for every 100,000 on-campus students from 1992 to 1997. During the same period, about one per 100,000 off-campus students developed the disease. Ongoing studies, including one by the Center for Disease Control, are exploring this trend, Golden said.
Early meningitis symptoms are similar to symptoms for the common cold, so many cases are not diagnosed until more severe symptoms develop. Earlier detection increases chances of survival.
Students who have fever and severe headaches accompanied by neck or back stiffness, rashes or confusion should contact Boynton Health Services or their primary medical provider immediately, officials said. Students who are concerned about the disease may also contact Boynton for more information.