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CDC watches adenovirus outbreak that killed University of Maryland student

There's a vaccine against the killer strain, but it's not available to the general public.
Image: McKeldin Library and fountain, University of Maryland
McKeldin Library and fountain, University of Maryland in College Park on June 2, 2013.John Greim / LightRocket via Getty Images file

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said Wednesday it is helping investigate an outbreak of adenovirus that has killed one student at the University of Maryland and sickened at least five more.

Olivia Paregol, 18, died Nov. 18, according to an obituary. She was a freshman at the university and died after suffering respiratory symptoms typical of the virus, her father, Ian Paregol, told local television stations as well as the Baltimore Sun.

At least one of those affected by the outbreak was infected with adenovirus 7, a strain that can cause sometimes fatal pneumonia, the Maryland Department of Health said in a statement sent to NBC News. It is the same strain of adenovirus that has killed 11 patients at a long-term care facility in New Jersey.

The CDC said it is testing other specimens from the patients. Neither the CDC nor the Maryland health department said whether it was adenovirus 7 that killed Paregol.

Adenoviruses are very common and can cause symptoms ranging from a cold to eye infections and sometimes stomach upset. Only a few of the 50 or so known strains cause serious disease but they include the adenovirus 7 strain.

The virus is not typically tracked by health officials so there are no statistics on how many people it makes sick every year, or how many it kills. But the adenovirus 4 and 7 strains have been linked with deadly outbreaks in the past and can be such a nuisance among new military recruits that they are now routinely vaccinated. The vaccine is only approved for military recruits.

The university is closed for the Thanksgiving holiday but confirmed the outbreak and the death on its website. “The Health Center staff has been on high alert and we have reached out to medical facilities in the area to heighten awareness of this illness,” Dr. David McBride, the health center’s director, said. “We offer our condolences during this difficult time.”

Two different strains of adenoviruses are causing outbreaks in New Jersey — one at the Wanaque long term care facility and a second at a pediatric facility in Voorhees. The New Jersey health department says 35 people, mostly ill children, were infected in the Wanaque outbreak. Eleven have died. Twelve cases are reported in Voorhees, all with adenovirus 3, a strain that is not usually associated with serious illness.

Like so many other viruses, adenoviruses spread easily, through touching, in the air via coughing and sneezing, and from touching contaminated surfaces, the CDC says. People who are not sick can still spread the virus to others if they are infected. The virus is not easy to kill.

“Adenoviruses are relatively resistant to common disinfectants and can be detected on surfaces, such as doorknobs, objects, and water of swimming pools and small lakes," the CDC said.

Ian Paregol was quoted as saying his daughter was taking immune suppressing drugs to treat Crohn’s disease. That could have put her at higher risk of severe illness from an infection such as adenovirus. “People with weakened immune systems are at high risk for developing severe illness caused by adenovirus infection,” the CDC says on its website.