Tests support viral meningitis as cause of death

Updated: October 31, 2005, 4:35 PM ET
Associated Press

COLUMBIA, Mo. -- Specialists have found no evidence to contradict an earlier diagnosis of viral meningitis as the cause of death for Missouri football player Aaron O'Neal.

Boone County Medical Examiner Valerie Rao determined in August that O'Neal, a 19-year-old reserve linebacker, died of the viral illness after collapsing during a preseason workout one month earlier. But Rao, leaving open the possibility that other factors contributed to O'Neal's sudden death, asked pathologists with the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta to examine brain tissue for a number of other viruses, including a strain linked to West Nile virus.

The results came back negative, according to a CDC pathology report provided by Rao to The Associated Press on Monday.

Rao said the CDC's findings, which she received earlier this month, make her even more confident that the earlier diagnosis was accurate. Other experts, including the chairman of the University of Missouri-Columbia's Department of Pathology and Anatomical Sciences, have questioned Rao's diagnosis.

Rao also had a private lab in Salt Lake City examine O'Neal's tissues to determine whether exercise-induced kidney failure played a role in his death. That test also turned up negative.

"We wanted to do everything we needed to do, to turn every stone," she said Monday. "I'll keep looking."

The CDC scientist who supervises the agency's Unexplained Deaths Project drew a less definitive conclusion.

"The type of inflammation they saw could be consistent with viral meningitis," said Sarah Reagan, an epidemiologist. "But these changes were nonspecific. It could have been viral meningitis. But it could have been other things."

Meningitis is an inflammation of the tissues and infection of the fluid covering the brain and spinal cord, and can be transmitted by viruses or bacteria.

Copyright 2005 by The Associated Press