A suspected case of meningitis discovered Tuesday in a member of East Tennessee State University’s dining services staff set off alarms at Washington County health agencies and triggered protocol to ensure against the infection’s spread.
At a called news conference Thursday in ETSU’s Burgin Dossett Hall, Director of Student/University Health Services Lisa Ousley said the employee, who is now hospitalized showing symptoms consistent with the life-threatening disease, worked on campus last week unloading a delivery truck.
He did not prepare or serve any food on campus or come into direct contact with students, but 10 employees who worked with him were examined for signs of infection, Ousley said.
“I’ve personally seen all of the employees that had contact with him,” she said. “The positive thing is they were all very low risk, no one had close contact, which would indicate for me as a provider that I could offer the option of a prophylactic or a preventative antibiotic dose.”
Meningitis is a swelling of the membranes covering the brain and spinal cord, caused mainly by viral or bacterial infection.
Its most common symptoms are headache, stiff neck, fever, confusion, vomiting and intolerance to light or loud noises, and can lead to deafness, epilepsy, fluid accumulation in the cavities of the brain and cognitive impairment.
The infection can spread through the air by contact with fluids expelled by coughing and sneezing and can be transmitted by sharing items put in the mouth, like cigarettes or drinking glasses, or through kissing.
Because of the closely shared living quarters, college campuses are especially watchful for meningitis, which could easily spread through the student body.
This fall, a new state law required all incoming college students younger than 22 years old who reside in on-campus student housing to provide proof of immunization against the disease within the last five years.
“When we find out on our campus community that we have a possible meningitis case, we don’t wait, we actually respond in a very positive way of contacting our local health department and contacting anyone who would have any sort of risk, even though low risk, of exposure to the in potentially infected individual,” Ousley said.
ETSU spokesman Joe Smith said the Washington County Health Department was contacted once the school learned of the potential for infection, and has been working closely with the agency to assess the risk to students and staff.
“Based on the info we have, and from what the health department told us, there’s no risk to our food operations, and we feel that any contact with anybody else on campus has been a low risk,” he said.
The health department is still working to definitively confirm the diagnosis, but Smith said it’s probable that it will be meningitis.
Once the case is confirmed, Smith said the media will be notified and ETSU will continue to be on heightened awareness looking for signs of other infections.