NEWS- Fear factor? Local woman's death raises questions

Jennifer Leigh Wells was an accomplished horsewoman who had just celebrated her 21st birthday a week earlier. Yet, the Monticello High graduate and UVA fourth-year student died on Sunday, September 10 in what appears to authorities as a case of bacterial meningitis.

Wells had complained of headaches on Friday morning, according to an account in the Daily Progress, and stayed at her parents' home in Charlottesville, away from school and her part time job at A Cut Above, the hair salon owned by her mother and stepfather. She reportedly collapsed that afternoon and was rushed to UVA Medical Center before passing away the next day.

In an e-mail sent to the UVA community Monday afternoon, Executive Director of Student Health Dr. James Turner said that despite the tragedy, there should be no cause for alarm among students and faculty. 

"This was a very isolated case in which the student did not live in University housing or with other students," he wrote. "All individuals who had contact with the student have been notified and provided antibiotics."

That's an opinion seconded by Dr. Lilian Peake, Health Director for the Thomas Jefferson Health District. 

"This is not something people need to take immediate actions against," she says. "It's a rare disease, and the general population is not at risk because of this one particular case."

Peake also emphasizes that this is not a disease that's transmitted in passing.

"Bacterial meningitis is spread by direct close contact with discharge from the infected person's nose or throat. So you cannot get it just from casual contact. It has to be close, intimate contact with the infected person," she says. 

Meningitis is an inflammation of the membranes surrounding the brain and spinal cord, caused by either a bacterium or a virus that has entered the bloodstream or cerebrospinal fluid from elsewhere in the body. 

According to Turner, almost 95 percent of UVA students had already received the vaccine against meningococcous, the suspected bacterium, and the other five percent have been encouraged to get the vaccine in the wake of Wells' death.

"We are cautiously optimistic that we've achieved such high levels of vaccination that we won't see any more cases," says Turner. "But we're quite vigilant and aggressively work up any student who looks like they have meningitis. And we'll stay on top of this."

The vaccine is 90 percent effective against four of the five strains of meningococcous. Turner says it might never be known which strain caused Wells' death, but if Wells had the fifth strain, strain B, it will be something of a relief.

"If it's strain B, the good news– if there is any positive news– is that strain," says Turner, "is less likely to cause outbreaks among several people and generally causes isolated, single cases."

This is UVA's first case of meningitis since 1996 when five students contracted the disease. All survived. 

"Back then, no students were vaccinated," says Turner. "Now we have one of the best vaccination rates in the country. For 10 years we've offered the best preventive tool we have, and we'll continue to offer it until a better vaccine comes along." 

According to the American College Health Association, 100 to 125 cases of meningitis occur on college campuses each year, resulting in five to 15 deaths. The increased risk among college students results from their crowded living situations and irregular sleep patterns.

What's puzzling about Wells' case is that she lived at home with her parents. Turner says he hopes to know more about why Wells died when tests come back in a few weeks. Wells' family declined comment when contacted Tuesday.

Generally, the symptoms of meningitis begin with a combination of high fever, headache, stiff neck; and sometimes a rash. If untreated, it can result in a coma or death. 

"You don't go from a headache to a coma," Peake says. "But generally speaking, if you have a high fever and a headache, and it's getting progressively worse, you should see a doctor."

Born September 3, 1985, Wells was an otherwise healthy 21-year-old who spent much of her time training and riding in state and national equestrian events. Before entering UVA, where she was a Dean's List psychology major, she graduated from Monticello High School. 

According to an obituary, she is survived by her mother and stepfather, Cindy and Tom Payne, her father, Jamie Wells of Glen Allen, her sister Wendy Shifflett, and her brothers Thomas "T.D." Payne, and Bradley and Aaron Wells. 

Jennifer Wells was rushed to UVA Medical Center on Friday afternoon after she collapsed at her parents' home. She had complained of headaches and stayed home from class that morning.