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Student dies of meningitis

By Judith Scherr Daily Planet Staff
Wednesday May 02, 2001

A 9-year-old Oxford School student died Tuesday morning of bacterial meningitis. 

Speaking at a late-afternoon press conference, the city’s health officer and school superintendent stressed that the disease is highly unusual and, even though a 12-year-old child died recently of bacterial meningitis in Livermore, the rate of meningitis in the area is no higher than it usually is. 

Bacterial meningitis “disease in Berkeley is rare,” Health Officer Dr. Poki Namkung said, explaining that over five years, four people in Berkeley have contracted the illness. “It is not a common disease.” 

There are normally about 200 to 300 cases of meningitis in California each year and 2,400 to 3,000 cases in the United States, she said. 

The girl went to school Friday, then became ill during the day, suffering from a sore throat and a stomach ache, Namkung said. She was ill during the weekend, but did not seem sick enough to be taken to a doctor for treatment. The mother checked on the child at about 4 a.m. Tuesday morning and she seemed to be sleeping well and without a fever, but when she checked again at about 6:40 a.m., the child was non-responsive and the mother called paramedics. She was taken to Children’s Hospital and was pronounced dead at about 7 a.m., Namkung said. 

School Superintendent Stephen Goldstone said a number of measures were being taken to ensure the health of the child’s classmates. This evening, parents were being called to let them know of the death. Later in the week the preventative medication, Rifanpin, will be available at the school to children whose families want them to take it.  

Standardized tests were to be taken today at Oxford, a kindergarten through fifth grade school in the north Berkeley hills, but they will be suspended until next week, Goldstone said. 

Goldstone said there would be school counselors and mental health professionals available to talk to children about the loss of their classmate and about the fears of the disease.  

Bacterial meningitis is characterized by a sudden onset of fever, a stiff neck and rash, Namkung said. It is curable if it is treated early enough with antibiotics, she said. 

An infection of the fluid that surrounds the brain and the spinal cord, it “is not a highly contagious disease,” Namkung said, explaining that bacterial meningitis is spread by body fluids, but is not air borne. In fact, 50 percent of the population walk around with the bacteria, but it doesn’t make them sick. “Fifty percent of us are carriers. Most of us remain healthy.” 

“It sounds terrible,” Namkung said, putting the death in perspective, “but it is one isolated case.” 

People with questions can call the city Health Department at 644-6500.