Close contacts of an Otago Polytechnic student who died at the weekend from meningitis have been offered antibiotics to reduce their risk of catching the disease.

This comes as the parents of final year nursing student Brittany Arthur (20), of Christchurch, are calling on Dunedin residents particularly students, to be wary of the disease's symptoms.

She died at Dunedin Hospital on Saturday from acute meningococcal meningitis.

It is not known how she contracted the disease.

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Southern District Health Board Medical Officer of Health Dr Marion Poore said today it had identified 21 close contacts of Ms Arthur, who were at "slightly higher risk of illness", and offered them antibiotics.

In a notice for staff and students at Dunedin's tertiary institutions, Dr Poore said Public Health South did not consider "there is an increased risk to staff and students generally" following Ms Arthur's death.

However, Dr Poore did stress the need for people to be aware of the signs and symptoms of the disease.

The meningococcus bacteria was present in the nose and throat of 10-20% of the population and frequently passed from person to person without causing harm.

However, on rare occasions it could penetrate the body's defences and cause a life threatening illness.

"This can usually be treated successfully with antibiotics if the condition is diagnosed early," Dr Poore said.

People who were vaccinated were only protected against specific strains and so were still at risk from the disease.

Signs and symptoms included (not all symptoms may be present):

• looking "really unwell" and getting worse
• fever
• a skin rash (reddish purple blotchy spots or bruising from bleeding into the skin)
• headache, nausea and neck stiffness, irritation by bright light

"Any contact of a person suffering from meningococcal disease who becomes ill with fever and a rash and any of the above symptoms should be seen by a doctor without delay."

"We encourage you to look out for your friends and seek help, particularly if they are really unwell and getting worse," Dr Poore said.