A high school student from Windham, N.H. has been hospitalized since late last week with a suspected case of bacterial meningitis, a potentially fatal disease that is spread through saliva, according to New Hampshire health officials.
The student, whose identity is being kept confidential, saw a physician last week for the symptoms. The doctor then turn reported it to state health officials Friday, as New Hampshire law mandates physicians do in suspected cases of bacterial meningitis, said Elizabeth Talbot, deputy state epidemiologist.
“This strain that has been identified, this type of bacteria, is one that is very serious,” she said.
State officials have reached out to several people who could have potentially contracted the disease, although Talbot said she did not know specifically how many people. The individuals who are at risk were advised to undertake preventative antibiotic treatment, she said.
“We’re not focused on people who had casual contact, like passing in the hall or just sitting in the same classroom,” Talbot said. “Any situation where people are sharing saliva, like in kissing or sharing drinks and cigarettes—those types of activities are what we’re attentive to.”
She said the high school’s building itself will not need any special sanitization other than the routine weekend cleaning usually done there.
“The disease doesn’t transmit through objects over a long period of time,” Talbot said. “They would need to be immediately sharing saliva.”
The high school’s principal has sent notification to parents in the district alerting them of the disease’s presence in the school.
Bacterial meningitis spreads easily through college dormitories and army barracks, Talbot said, and complications from the disease can cause brain damage, hearing loss, or learning disabilities, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
About 4,100 cases of bacterial meningitis, including 500 deaths, occurred countrywide each year between 2003 and 2007, the most recent dates that data is available, according to the Centers for Disease Control.
New Hampshire sees about a dozen meningitis cases each year, but there have been no deaths reported in recent years there from the illness, Talbot said.
Doctors think the student’s illness was caused by the pathogen Neisseria meningitidis , Talbot said.
She said bacterial meningitis is less common than viral meningitis, which is spread through food, water and mosquitoes, but noted that it was impossible to know how many people are diagnosed with the viral strains, since state law only mandates physicians report the bacterial types.
Meningitis can cause victims to experience severe headaches, a high fever, and mental disorientation and confusion, Talbot said. Anyone with those symptoms is encouraged to see a doctor, and officials also recommend that at-risk groups—such as students about to attend college—receive a meningitis vaccination.