An LSU freshman who was discovered dead in her campus residential hall last month died from acute viral meningitis.
The East Baton Rouge Parish Coroner’s Office released the cause of death in a report about 18-year-old Marakah Dennis, of Washington, D.C., who died in September. The LSU Reveille first reported the results of the autopsy Wednesday.
Dennis’ roommate in Cypress Hall told investigators Dennis had been sick with an upset stomach for the two days prior to her death, according to the report. Emergency Medical Services responded to Dennis’ room on Sept. 17 to find her unresponsive.
Ernie Ballard, LSU’s director of media relations, said the university received the results from the coroner on Oct. 18 once the toxicology screen was complete.
“When we talk about meningitis, we talk about an infection of the covering of the brain, the meninges, which get inflamed and that’s what led to this young lady’s death,” said East Baton Rouge Parish Coroner Dr. William “Beau” Clark. “She contracted it as a virus.”
Viral meningitis is not very common, Clark said, and most people who contract the virus survive it.
LSU students, their families and faculty and staff should not panic.
“University personnel are at no more risk of developing viral meningitis now than they were eight weeks ago, before this unfortunate case happened,” said Dr. Nelson Perret, LSU’s Student Health Center medical director.
Perret said there have been no other cases of viral meningitis at the university in the past year that he is aware of, though there was at least one case within the last five years.
The virus that caused Dennis’ acute viral meningitis has not been identified, but possible viruses that can be responsible include West Nile virus, Eastern equine encephalitis and influenza, said Shane Evans, the coroner office’s chief of investigations.
“We have determined her death is due to acute viral meningitis,” Evans said. “However, we have not reached the point in our investigation where we can identify the specific virus responsible.”
Tissue samples will need to be tested by the state Department of Health and other agencies before officials can determine what virus was responsible for Dennis’ death.
While bacteria are fought with antibiotics, there are very few drugs that fight viruses.
Symptoms of viral meningitis include high fever, stiff neck, severe headaches and nausea, according to the Mayo Clinic.
“Your body’s immune system is the most likely thing to defend you against the virus,” Clark said. “Dying from viral meningitis isn’t a common thing; however, it can happen.”
Though there is no immunization for viral meningitis, there are vaccines to prevent bacterial meningitis, Clark said.
Louisiana law requires post-secondary education students to have the meningococcal ACWY vaccine for bacterial meningitis, unless they sign a religious or conscientious objection waiver, Perret said. A second meningococcal vaccine for bacterial meningococcus type B has been developed and is recommended for high-risk populations, such as college students.
“Many consider college students, especially those in residential halls, to be in the high-risk group,” Perret said. “The Student Health Center does endorse vaccinating with meningococcal B for these students.”
Clark said the best prevention is to take contact precautions.
“Wash your hands. If somebody’s sick, don’t go around them. If you’re young or elderly, and you have a suppressed immune system, don’t be around them,” Clark said. “If you’re sick, don’t go and infect everybody else. I’m sure everybody else would appreciate that.”