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UO students offered antibiotics after death of acrobatics athlete

Tuesday’s death of a University of Oregon student-athlete may be linked to an outbreak of a contagious bacterial infection that hospitalized three other students, university and local public health officials said.

Lauren Jones, 18, a member of the acrobatics and tumbling team, died unexpectedly after requiring medical attention, the university said in a statement. No further details were released.

An autopsy of Jones will be performed this morning, and local public health officials will perform testing to verify whether she died from complications due to meningococcemia, said Jason Davis, spokesman for Lane County Public Health.

“It is one of the possibilities,” university spokeswoman Julie Brown said. “It is not confirmed.”

Aside from the previous students’ diagnoses, it was unclear Tuesday night why officials suspect that meningococcemia may be the cause of Jones’ death.

The death also raised the possibility that the university may hold mass vaccination clinics to prevent the spread of meningococcemia, if testing confirms that Jones’ death is from the bacteria infection.

It has sickened three other UO students, including one who fell gravely ill, since mid-January. All have been released from the hospital and are recovering.

On Tuesday evening, UO Health Center employees visited Barnhart Hall, the on-campus dorm where Jones lived, to offer antibiotics that keep the bacteria from spreading in the body to the roughly 500 students who live there, Brown said.

The university also plans to administer the antibiotic to an unspecific number of student-athletes, she said.

The university and its tumbling team were left to grieve for the death of one of their own.

Jones, a freshman, was majoring in chemistry. Last year, she graduated from her high school in a suburb about 20 miles east of Atlanta. She was captain both of the high school’s varsity gymnastics team and cheerleading squad, and was named their most valuable player her senior year. She was a member of the honor roll and played in the high school band.

In an article that appeared last April in The Champion newspaper in Decatur, Ga., Jones said she knew at an early age that she wanted to go to college for competitive cheerleading, and was thrilled when she was offered a partial scholarship to compete in acrobatics and tumbling at the UO.

“It’s absolutely wonderful,” Jones said about signing with the UO. “I’m so happy.”

Jones joined another Southwest DeKalb High School alum, Sydnee Walton, who also is a member of the UO acrobatics and tumbling team.

“I contacted the coaches and told them I know Sydnee,” Jones told the newspaper. “And that’s how I got there.”

Jones said her plan upon graduation was to return to Georgia and start an acrobatics and tumbling program.

Chelsea Shaw, the UO tumbling team’s head coach, said in a statement that Jones’ death is “a terrible and sudden loss for our whole Oregon community.”

“Lauren was such a positive and bright spirit every day, and her smile was contagious,” she said. “She will be greatly missed and our prayers and deepest condolences go out to her whole family, friends, previous teammates and anyone else who had the opportunity to know Lauren.”

In the three confirmed cases of meningococcemia, the university sent hundreds of emails and text messages to a total of more than 2,000 students and faculty who may have shared a class with the students.

In the most recent case, it also sent out a campuswide email reminding students to take protective steps, including not sharing utensils or coffee cups.

Dozens of students also have voluntarily received the antibiotic at the UO Health Center.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention defines an outbreak at a university as when at least two or three confirmed cases of the same serogroup of bacteria occur within three months. All three cases are serogroup B, the most prevalent form of the bacteria in the region, Davis said, with the earliest occurring about a month ago.

Local public health officials have received only partial results so far from testing done by the CDC to determine whether the three earlier cases are conclusively linked.

If the cases are not linked, indicating an unexplained spread of the bacteria, public health officials would order the UO to organize mass vaccination clinics for all students, Davis explained.

Davis said university officials also could voluntarily decide to hold the vaccination clinics. "It’s up to them to decide what’s best for their student population,” he said.

A bacteria causes meningococcal disease, which can lead to meningitis, the potentially life-threatening swelling of the membranes that protect the brain and spinal cord. Or it can cause meningococcemia, an infection of the bloodstream that can damage the walls of blood vessels and organs. Both diseases can be fatal.

The bacterium that can cause meningococcemia is contagious, spread through kissing, sharing utensils or cups, and being within 3 feet of an infected individual for at least four hours over a seven-day period. It does not spread as easily as flu or measles viruses.

Lillian Pagenstecher, a 21-year-old UO student, died of bacterial meningitis in May 2012.

In September 2003, a 16-year-old Eugene high school student, Mani Shimada, died of the illness. In 2001, UO freshman Jill Dieringer died after contracting bacterial meningitis.

Follow Christian Hill on Twitter @RGchill . Email christian.hill@registerguard.com.