Fatal Meningitis Outbreak Linked to Hockey Game
Health officials said today they have traced the bacteria to a death in Denver in April.
Officials are speculating that players at the end of a June 9 hockey game in Fort Collins removed their mouth guards, then shook hands, spreading the bacteria through saliva on their hands, said Jane Viste, a spokeswoman for the Larimer County Department of Health and Environment.
Since meningitis is spread through contact with infected saliva or nasal fluids, it is also possible that this outbreak was transmitted through spitting during the game or sharing of water bottles, she said.
"This clustering among the hockey players is very unusual," said Dr. Adrienne LeBailly, the department's director.
Nick Smith, 28, a mechanical engineer whose wife is six months pregnant, died Tuesday. Another hockey player, Brian Wormus, a 29-year-old father of two, died on June 14.
A third hockey player, William Jubert, remained hospitalized in critical condition in Montana, where he had been vacationing, Karen Ogden, a spokeswoman for Benefis Health System Hospital in Great Falls, Mont., told AOL News.
The fourth person, a Colorado State University student who has not been publicly identified, was transferred to a hospital in Denver after falling ill during Memorial Day weekend, Viste said.
Although Wormus' wife works at CSU, the connection between the hockey players and the ill CSU student is unknown and possibly remote, Viste said.
What is known is that the bacteria responsible for four of the five cases are genetically identical, meaning they come from the same source. The test results for Jubert haven't been sent from Montana to Fort Collins yet, but they are likely to be genetically identical to the others, officials said.
"Even with this information, we will be very unlikely to tie the cases together directly," LeBailly said. "Many people carry these bacteria in their throats but have no symptoms."
Less than 1 percent of the people who harbor the bacteria become ill, but they can transmit it to others. The bacteria can cause either meningitis, an infection of the membranes covering the brain and spinal cord, or sepsis, an infection of the bloodstream.
Meningococcal sepsis has a mortality rate of up to 15 percent or more, Viste said.
County health officials are vaccinating all Fort Collins Adult Hockey League players. So far, 65 people have received preventative antibiotics, and about 55 have received vaccinations, Viste said. College students are routinely advised to get vaccinated for meningitis before attending school.
Officials are optimistic the outbreak might be over.
"Enough time has passed for the incubation period, and we've seen no new cases, so that's very good news for now," Viste said.
Ironically, Fort Collins, a community of 120,000 residents 65 miles north of Denver, is home to one of the research laboratories of the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.