Meningitis threatens students

Ignoring his girlfriend’s pleas to drive him to the hospital, John Kach went to bed March 11, 2000, with what he thought was a severe case of the flu. Even with his fever of 105 and incessant vomiting, Kach had no idea that his body was in for the fight of its life.

The next morning, a barely conscious Kach left Salve Regina University in Newport, R.I., to undergo a series of blood tests at Newport Hospital. It wasn’t until a doctor noticed a rash on Kach’s back and chest that he realized how sick his patient really was.

“I was in such a daze, kind of delirious, in and out of consciousness. In the hospital, when I checked in, I’m passing out while people are asking me questions,” Kach said.

After being transferred to Rhode Island Hospital, Kach was diagnosed with meningococcal meningitis, a bacterial disease. Within hours, his kidneys and lungs stopped functioning and doctors put him in a drug-induced coma.

Kach, a basketball player, woke up six weeks later to discover that his right leg had been amputated below the knee along with all his fingers and the toes on his left foot.

With their close living quarters, poor eating habits and stressful lifestyle, college students are particularly vulnerable to meningitis, which affects 3,000 Americans a year, according to the Meningitis Foundation of America. About 100 to 125 of those cases are college students.

Freshmen, especially if they live in the dorms, are about six times at greater risk than other college students, according to the foundation.

According to Dr. James Turner, a professor of medicine and the executive director of the department of student health at the University of Virginia, meningitis is found in two types: viral and bacterial. Bacterial meningitis, the type Kach had, is the rarer, deadlier form of the disease, killing about 10 percent of the people it affects. Viral meningitis can be treated in a matter of days.

The bacterial form of meningitis is contracted through respiratory secretions and can spread through kissing, coughing, or sharing a drinking glass. It is especially dangerous because it spreads so rapidly.

The deadliest part about this disease is that by the time it is diagnosed, it is often too late.

Kach’s initial flu-like symptoms are typical of menigococcal disease and include fever, vomiting, a stiff neck, headache, confusion, exhaustion and a rash.

The meningitis bacteria causes swelling and inflammation in the brain and lining of the spinal chord, often leaving survivors deaf or brain-damaged.