Student Death Sparks Disease Warning at NC High School

The unexpected death of a ninth-grader at East Chapel Hill High School has North Carolina health officials on the lookout for a rare but deadly infection.

The student, whose name and gender have not been made public, died Wednesday morning less than 24 hours after showing signs of meningococcal disease, ABC affiliate WTVD reported. But a letter to parents obtained by WTVD said the student may have been contagious at school for a week.

"Symptoms usually start within 3-4 days of exposure but can take as long as 14 days to begin," the letter read.

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Meningococcus is a bacterium that can cause meningitis and blood infections, which can pass from person to person through saliva.

"It's not airborne. It doesn't live for a long time on door knobs and other hard surfaces," Orange County Health Director Dr. Colleen Bridger told WTVD . "Kissing somebody, drinking after somebody, smoking the same cigarette as somebody, those types of things are what we worry about when we think about transmission."

The student is thought to have died from a blood infection known as meningococcal septicemia, WTVD reported.

"I'm just terribly, terribly sorry for the family. Terribly sorry," Caroline Sherman, a mother of two students at the school, told WTVD.

Signs of meningococcal septicemia include fatigue, vomiting, diarrhea, chills and muscle aches, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. A dark purple rash may appear in the later stages of the infection. Signs of meningitis include fever, headache and stiff neck.

The CDC recommends that all 11- and 12-year-olds be vaccinated against meningococcal disease. It's unclear whether the student received the vaccine.

The Orange County Health Department has advised people who were in close contact with that student to take antibiotics to prevent the infection, WTVD reported.