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Measures in place to help school deal with meningitis death

By Judith Scherr Daily Planet staff
Thursday May 03, 2001

A 9-year-old girl who died Tuesday morning of bacterial meningitis set off a rapid community response from city health and school officials, who hoped to prevent the spread of both the disease and the rumors it engendered. 

For Tom Yamaguchi, the neighbor who unsuccessfully tried to resuscitate the child using CPR, Nambi Phelps was much more than the victim of a ruthless disease. She was “a sweet, lovely girl,” he said. 

“She was always kind and friendly to everyone in the neighborhood,” Yamaguchi wrote in a letter to the Daily Planet (see Forum, p. 4). “And that is how I prefer to remember her; the energetic and always optimistic child, riding her bike down my sidewalk or running to my back yard for the ball that went over the back fence. During the hot, summer months, she had played with my daughter and cooled down over the lawn sprinkler in that same back yard.” 

Responding to the child’s death by meningococcal meningitis, city and school district officials hosted an informational meeting for parents Wednesday evening at Oxford School, the kindergarten through fifth-grade primary school Nambi attended. And they informed the public, through the press, about the nature of the disease. 

At a Wednesday afternoon press conference, Interim School Superintendent Steve Goldstone also talked about what the district was doing to help Nambi’s classmates through their grieving. At the beginning of the school day on Wednesday, the students came together in an assembly where the principal explained what happened. She wanted to make sure the children understood that “school is a safe place for them,” Goldstone said.  

“During the day the children participated in making a memorial of artwork to express their love and loss,” he said. 

City officials repeated what they told the press Tuesday, explaining how difficult it is for the disease to spread. 

City Health Officer Dr. Poki Namkung stressed that transmission of the bacteria is limited to “direct contact with a person’s bodily fluids,” during activities such as drinking from the same cup, sharing utensils or kissing. “Meningitis cannot live outside the body. You can’t get it from a drinking fountain,” she said. 

Still, as Goldstone confirmed, the children at Oxford School had been given bottled water to drink on Wednesday. “The bottled water was provided by a parent,” Goldstone said. “It may not have been medically necessary.” 

Because the disease is not easily transmittable, health officials are counseling parents to have their children take a prophylactic medication, an antibiotic the school is offering, only if the child might have been in very close contact with the deceased girl. Oxford School will hold a clinic to dispense the medication on Thursday and Friday.  

Children must have parental permission to get the medication. The health officer said the district is targeting children in Nambi’s school class and after-school class. Others who request the medication will be assessed and counseled by health officials. The medication can have negative side effects and overuse of antibiotics is not recommended, Namkung said. However, no parents who want the medicine for their children will be denied, she added, 

Namkung addressed the question of two Berkeley High School students on the rowing team who had come down with meningitis within the last month. She underscored that they had viral and not bacterial meningitis and therefore the cases could not be related. “There is no direct linkage between the three cases,” she said. “The girls had viral meningitis. It’s very different.” 

Health officials are monitoring the two other children in the family, she added, asking the media not to contact the grieving family. “They are in shock,” Namkung said. 

A hotline at 981-CITY (981-2489) will be available to those with questions on Wednesday. The city’s Web site also has information at