A San Diego State University (SDSU) undergraduate student who was taken ill on October 12 and was hospitalized October 14 for presumed meningococcal meningitis, has died from the dangerous bacterial infection.

Meningitis symptoms/Public domain image/Mikael Häggström
Meningitis symptoms/Public domain image/Mikael Häggström

According to a statement from Vice President of Student Affairs, Eric Rivera today, “I have been notified of the passing earlier today of Sara Stelzer to meningococcal meningitis.  We are deeply saddened by the loss of one of our students to this terrible illness.  After speaking with her family, we know that Sara was a vibrant young woman who loved San Diego State, her friends and the time she spent at our university.

“It is always difficult when a young life is lost, especially when that person is part of our SDSU family.  We will do all we can to support Sara’s family and our campus community during this difficult time.  We know our students will come together to support one another but also want them to know that counseling services are available and we encourage students to contact Counseling and Psychological services, if needed.  Our heartfelt thoughts and prayers are with Sara’s family and friends.”

The 18-year-old pre-communications student lived on campus and was not employed.

The university has been working with the County of San Diego Health and Human Services to identify and notify people who may have been in close contact with her. The university also notified the entire SDSU community, providing details about symptoms and where to go if they believe they had contact with Stelzer or are experiencing symptoms of meningitis.

Meningococcal meningitis is caused by the bacterium, Neisseria meningitidis, which causes the most severe form of bacterial meningitis. Meningitis is an infection of the membranes covering the brain and spinal cord. It can also be found in the bloodstream. This particular type of meningitis is very severe and can result in death if not treated promptly. Even in cases where treatment has been given, the fatality rate is around 15%.

The symptoms of bacterial meningitis are sudden, with fever, stiff neck, body aches and headaches. As the disease progresses other symptoms may include nausea, vomiting, photophobia and seizures. A petechial rash seen on the trunk and lower extremities, bleeding complications, multi-organ failures and shock are usually final signs. This disease has the ability to kill within hours of getting it.

Up to 10-20% of older children and young adults carry this organism in the mouth and nose, though the carriage rate will vary with age and closeness of population. The majority of people that carry this bacterium have no clinical disease. The organism is spread person to person through respiratory secretions from the nose and mouth (coughing, sneezing and kissing). Experts are unsure why some people advance to meningitis disease while many do not.

Crowded living conditions facilitate the spread of the organisms and places like military barracks and college dormitories are well documented areas of concern with this disease.

If you have close contact with someone with meningococcal meningitis, see your doctor for prophylactic antibiotics. Meningococcal meningitis vaccines available in the US protect against most strains of the bacterium.

This disease is considered a medical emergency and if you have the classic symptoms see your health care professional. It can be treated with antibiotics, but without delay.