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Tests support viral meningitis as cause of death

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.