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Health Officials Try To Calm Public Fears About Meningococcal Disease

OPB | March 5, 2014 3:15 p.m. | Updated: March 14, 2014 6:42 a.m. | Portland

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Portland area health officials reported Wednesday  that a Central Catholic High School student died Tuesday of a suspected meningococcal infection.

While they say the disease is contagious, they stress it’s very uncommon to see it pass from one person to another.

Paul Lewis

Paul Lewis

Kristian Foden-Vencil / OPB

Seventeen-year-old Jacob Parkhurst was in hospital less than 24 hours when he died Tuesday. Meningococcal disease is suspected, but not confirmed.

Tri-County Health Officer, Dr. Paul Lewis, called it a quick running infection, but says it is difficult to pass from person to person, “It’s possible, but again this is a disease that affects one in one hundred thousand people in the state per year. So although it is in principle communicable, it’s very uncommon for us to actually see linked cases of disease,” he said.

Lewis says the health department is not aware of any other cases linked to Parkhurst.

Central Catholic High School, Portland.

Central Catholic High School, Portland.

Rebecca Galloway / OPB

About a dozen people who had face-to-face contact with him have been treated with a dose of antibiotics. School officials have sent out a letter telling parents about the disease, and its symptoms.

Health officials say that while they suspect meningococcal disease lead to Parkhurst’s death, there are a handful of other infections that might have been responsible. However, they may never be able to track for certain which disease was involved.

During the mid 1990s, Lewis says Oregon had one of the highest rates of meningococcal disease in the world. But improved vaccinations have reduced case numbers, “Fortunately that rate has come down dramatically from a peak of well over 100 cases per year during that period to 30 per year in the last few years.  There were 25 in 2012 and only 13 reported statewide in 2013,” he said.

Lewis says that while vaccinations have helped, many local cases are caused by a bacteria strain not included in the vaccine. So far, efforts to include that strain have not been successful.

Meningococcal bacteria live in the noses of about 10 percent of the population. It’s not clear how the bacteria cause an infection.

Symptoms include fever, headache and  stiffness, and pain in the neck, back, and shoulders. People can also suffer from nausea or a  skin rash of small red or purple spots.

Anyone concerned with these symptoms is being asked to contact a health provider immediately. 

On the Web

Central Catholic High School statement

Oregon Health Authority

CDC Meningoccal Disease

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