The death of a Dakota Wesleyan University (DWU) student found in his dormitory room Wednesday has been confirmed as caused by the serious bacterial infection, meningococcal meningitis, according to state health officials Saturday.

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

19-year-old freshman, Beau Keeter, reportedly suffered from flu-like symptoms prior to his death.

The death of the DWU student has prompted South Dakota health officials to encourage vaccination against the bacterium and antibiotic prophylaxis for those with close contact with Beau.

“Department disease prevention staff are now contacting those individuals who may have been exposed to offer them antibiotic prophylaxis,” said Dr. Lon Kightlinger, state epidemiologist for the department. “This is a serious illness but we want to emphasize that prophylaxis is only necessary for those who had very close contact, such as sharing a water bottle or kissing, or roommates. Those with casual contact are at low risk and do not need antibiotic prophylaxis.”

The exact strain of the Neisseria meningitidis bacterium was not disclosed. The Department of Health says there is a vaccine that will protect against four of the strains of meningococcus. It is recommended for children 11 through 18 years of age and college freshmen. Meningococcal vaccine is available from family health care providers and campus student health centers. The department provides it for those 11-18 years of age who are eligible for the federal Vaccines for Children Program (Medicaid eligible, Native American or Alaskan Native, uninsured or underinsured).

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 inthe 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 organism and places like military barracks and college dormitories are well documented areas of concern with this disease.

The school posted on their Facebook page the following:

The DWU community responded the way anyone can imagine, with heartbreak for his family and friends, and by consoling one another during a special prayer service Wednesday night. Campus Pastor Eric Van Meter and Campus Counselor Linda Cimpl have been on hand to aid in any way they can and we encourage anyone who needs someone to talk with, to contact either of them.

Funeral services will be at 10:30 a.m., Sept. 30, at the Miller Armory, in Miller, with the Rev. Matt Richards officiating. Burial will be at Beulah Cemetery, rural St. Lawrence. Visitation will begin at 6 p.m., Sept. 29, with a 7 p.m. prayer service, all at the First Methodist Church in Miller. Reck Funeral Home, of Miller, is handling arrangements.

South Dakota has reported nine cases of meningococcal infection in the past 5 years.

Robert Herriman is a microbiologist and the Editor-in-Chief of Outbreak News Today and the Executive Editor of The Global Dispatch

Follow @bactiman63