The Virginia and Tennessee Departments of Health are investigating the death, said Dr. John Dreyzehner, director of the Cumberland Plateau and Lenowisco Health Districts.
The deceased was not identified other than as a young male from Knox County above school age.
“We have identified and contacted almost all the individuals known to have had close contact with the deceased. All those individuals that are believed to be at risk for exposure to meningitis either already have or will receive treatment as needed,” Dreyzehner said.
Meningitis is an infection of the tissues that cover the brain and spinal cord. It can be caused by viruses, bacteria or fungi. Knowing whether meningitis is caused by a virus or bacterium is important because the severity of illness, and the treatment, differ. The illness in this case — bacterial meningitis — is generally treatable with antibiotics. The illnesses cannot always be distinguished.
The bacteria that cause meningitis are spread by direct contact with respiratory droplets or secretions from an infected person, such as saliva or nasal mucus. This can occur when an infected person coughs or sneezes in someone’s face, or by kissing or sharing personal items such as eating utensils, cups, water bottles or lip balm/lipstick.
A significant exposure is defined as kissing or sharing cigarettes or other personal items above.
“Anyone who has had close intimate contact — ‘shared spit’ to be plainspoken about it — with an infected individual may need to take a short course of antibiotics to reduce the risk of illness,” Dreyzehner said. “Be sure to consult your local health department or physician if you have questions or concerns.”
Common symptoms of meningitis include fever and chills, severe headache, stiff neck, nausea and vomiting, sensitivity to bright light, and possibly a rash. Infants and young children may be sleepy, irritable and show a lack of appetite. Symptoms usually develop within two to 10 days of exposure.
The best way to prevent the spread of meningitis is not to share personal items, especially eating and drinking utensils, and to wash hands frequently, particularly before dining.
A vaccine for meningitis is recommended for youth ages 11-18, Dreyzehner said. A new meningitis vaccine called a “conjugate” vaccine is available for persons age 2 through 55, and an older “polysaccharide” type vaccine is licensed for people older than 55. Both vaccines can prevent meningitis including two of the three most common types in the United States and a type that causes epidemics in Africa. They are about 90 percent effective but cannot prevent all types of the disease.