Dean of the College Benedict H. Gross ’71 said that to his knowledge, this is the first reported incidence of bacterial meningitis at Harvard College.
Eliot House Master Lino Pertile sent an e-mail last night to House residents saying that anyone known to have come in contact with Timothy L. Lyons ’04 since March 15 has been contacted and advised to take antibiotics as a precaution. Pertile wrote that he released Lyons’ name to the House community with his family’s permission to ensure that students can “seek appropriate medical advice.”
While College administrators and health officials said the disease can be very serious—even fatal if left untreated—they asserted that the chance of its spreading at Harvard is very low.
Bacterial meningitis is usually treated successfully when diagnosed early on, according to the Massachusetts Department of Public Health (MDPH) website.
Lyons was accompanied by a friend to University Health Services (UHS) this weekend after experiencing “flu-like symptoms,” UHS Director David S. Rosenthal ’59 said. After it was determined that he had meningitis, Lyons was taken to a Harvard-affiliate hospital in Boston for treatment, where he remained last night, administrators said.
Gross said last night that he did not think the disease would spread to other students, and the six to eight roommates and friends who were in close contact with Lyons were already being treated with antibiotics.
“We make sure that all of the student contacts get treated accordingly,” said Alfred DeMaria, state director of communicable disease control at the Massachusetts Department of Public Health (MDPH), who is working with the College on this case.
There is no way to determine the source of the student’s infection, DeMaria said.
The MDPH gets involved whenever there is a danger to public health, which includes cases of meningitis, DeMaria said.
Gross sent an e-mail last night informing students of the infection, stressing that “meningococcal meningitis is very difficult to catch” and outlining procedures for seeking advice and treatment.
“What any student should do if he or she is concerned is call UHS or go into UHS for testing,” Gross said.
The disease is spread through very close personal contact and, though first-year college students are at a “moderately increased risk” of contracting meningitis, average college students contract it at a lower rate than 18 to 24-year-olds as a whole, according to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
Harvard College recommends that all students get vaccinated for meningitis before arriving at campus, though vaccinations are not required. Connecticut and New Jersey both require meningitis vaccines for all students living in campus housing.
Meningococcal meningitis is characterized by inflammation of the membranes (meninges) around the brain or spinal cord, which can develop suddenly or gradually, and symptoms of the illness include sudden onset of high fever, nausea, headache, aching muscles, vomiting and mental confusion. Rashes also occur in about half of cases.
This form of bacterial meningitis is fatal in 10 percent of cases, with another 10 percent chance of brain damage, according to the Mayo Clinic website. Although only around 100 college students contract meningitis each year, each case has the potential to become a campus-wide epidemic, according to the website.