As humans, we are unmistakably fragile. Even the strongest of us are susceptible to infection, to injury and to tragedy. Every so often, our frailty catches up with us, or with someone we know, and we can only ask why.
Go five hours north up Highway 101 and you’ll be in Berkeley. Take the Telegraph Avenue exit off Highway 24 and drive until you hit Haas Pavilion. At around 3:30 today, the Cal woman’s basketball team will be practicing, but they won’t be thinking of back-door cuts and how to attack a zone defense. They’ll be asking themselves, “why?”
No, their minds will be elsewhere, and their hearts will be heavy, because they know all too well that life is a rare and precious occasion. On January 19th teammate Alisa Lewis succumbed to what doctors identified as bacterial meningitis, an infection that is known to be lethal and tends to pick on the young.
As the Golden Bears found out the hard way, tight-knit groups of people are ideal situations for meningitis to persist. Anything from sharing a kitchen utensil to a kiss can transmit the infection from one person to another. While the infection is relatively rare, experts believe that the disease should be taken more seriously than it is.
“Some people just carry it in their throat, and when they’re ill they may develop it from the organism they have,” UCSB Student Health Center Director of Clinical Services April Beckett said. “Once it starts multiplying, if you share fluids you’re at risk. It’s a communicable disease, so you can get it from sharing fluids, but it’s not transmitted from being in the same room as somebody.”
According to Beckett, freshmen living in the dorms are among the highest at-risk populations. As hard as it is to swallow, athletes like Lewis may be at similar risk considering all the variables. Understandably, athletes are advised to drink a great deal of water while they practice and commonly live together, gaining a sense of comfort in sharing that could lead to transmission of meningitis.
While no statistic for vaccinated student-athletes exist, it is reasonable to assume that few have been vaccinated considering the rarity of the disease (approx. 3,000/year) and the costliness of the vaccination ($60 for freshmen, $76 for everyone else).
Currently, the University does not require students or student-athletes to receive the vaccination, but the UCSB training staff is always on alert for any possible outbreaks.
“We look for anybody who’s come down with severe flu systems, headache or neck pains,” Assistant Athletic Trainer Chris Ritter said. “When they go through their physical, they go through a history review and their vaccinations are reviewed, but I don’t think the University requires them to get vaccinated.”
Considering what’s at stake and what the Cal women’s basketball team is currently dealing with, maybe they should.
“The vaccine is very safe and available. The disease is very rare but if you get it you could easily die. The vaccine can cost around $70 which is quite costly, though. In a perfect world, everybody could and should get vaccinated but it’s a cost-benefit issue,” Beckett said.
When asked, an overwhelming majority of UCSB coaches claimed little to no knowledge of the infection.