Meningitis kills senior at Dakota Ridge High School

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By Emile Hallez

Bacterial meningitis has been confirmed as the cause in the death of a Dakota Ridge High student on April 22.

The student has been identified as senior Jasmine Montoya, 17, who was only a month away from graduating and had plans to attend college.

In the wake of the Montoya’s death, the school is balancing precautionary measures with helping a grieving student body.

“It’s incredibly tough,” principal Jim Jelinek said. “The grandparents of the young lady were here, and we’re trying to get them a cap and gown.”

The Jefferson County health department sent nurses to the school to determine if any other students had close contact with the victim.

“I can’t even imagine how shocking it is for the family, because it happened so quickly,” said school district spokeswoman Lynn Setzer.

A vigil was held April 26 for Montoya, and a funeral mass was scheduled for the following morning.

School counselors have been responsive to needs of both students and faculty, Jelinek said.

“They quickly dispatched themselves to the classrooms,” he said. “We have teachers that are incredibly impacted by this, and they just want to be there for the kids.”

Montoya presented flu-like symptoms and left school early on April 21.

The school sent a health-department letterto parents the next day alerting them of the student’s death and detailing information about bacterial meningitis, including symptoms, prevention and treatment.

“We have reached them and are continuing to reach other possible contacts,” said health department spokeswoman Nancy Braden. “They have been provided with information and prophylactic antibiotics.”

Though the health department identified high-risk contacts, none have complained of any symptoms of bacterial meningitis, Jelinek said.

“None of them are even feeling sick,” he said. “Unfortunately a lot of the symptoms feel like the common cold or flu. … We’re hoping that people will go to their doctors as soon as possible (if they show symptoms).”

Bacterial meningitis causes inflammation of the meninges, or the membranes covering the brain and spinal cord. Infections can progress rapidly, with symptoms becoming apparent within several hours to more than a day following the incubation period.

The disease presents with flu-like symptoms, including high fever, a stiff neck and headache. Bacterial meningitis can be treated with several different antibiotics, and due to the rapid progression of the infection,a swift diagnosis can be critical to survival. Identification of the virulent bacterium is made through a spinal tap.

The bacteria are spread through close contact with an infected person. Though not as contagious as influenza, meningitis can be transmitted through coughing, sneezing, kissing or sharing food or utensils.

Early treatment with antibiotics can reduce the risk of death to below 15 percent, the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention states.

“The one thing that continues to haunt me a bit is, ‘Where does it come from?’ ” Jelinek said. “It has to come from somewhere; we just don’t know where.”

The meningitis-causing bacterium cannot survive outside of a host’s body for very long. Identifying a physically contagious site at the school is impossible, Jelinek said, as the bacterium requires a live host, traveling from person to person. Cleansing the school’s facility would have no impact on any potential spread of the disease, he said.

“You go home with flu symptoms … and it can turn deadly in just a couple hours,” he said.

The severity of bacterial meningitis differs significantly from that of viral meningitis, from which most patients are able to recover fully without any medication.

Two effective vaccinations against many forms of bacterial meningitis are available and are often given to students ages 11 to 18 and to college students living in dorms. Once administered, the vaccines take 10 to 14 days to elicit immunity to meningitis.

“We do want to stress that there are two vaccines available for teens,” Braden said. “People should check with their health care provider or local health department.”

Students pulled together amid the school’s somber atmosphere on Friday, Jelinek said.

“Kids are really resilient,” he said. “They really surround each other with support in the face of tragedy.”


Contact Emile Hallez Williams at emile@evergreenco.com or 303-933-2233, ext. 22. For updates, check www.ColumbineCourier.com.