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Second meningitis case spurs action

By John Geluardi Daily Planet staff
Saturday May 12, 2001

Ten days after the bacterial meningitis death of 9-year-old Nambi Phelps, Berkeley Health Officer Dr. Poki Namkung held a press conference Friday to announce a second case of the contagious disease.  

The second case has spurred the Health and Human Services Department to launch an aggressive information campaign that will include going door to door in west and south Berkeley neighborhoods.  

The city also held a screening clinic at Berkeley High School Friday and will hold two others at various locations during the weekend.  

“We are taking a very aggressive course of action because it is imperative we break the chain of transmissions,” Namkung said. 

A 19-year-old woman, who is a friend of Phelps’ family, was taken by ambulance to Alta Bates Hospital at 8 p.m. Thursday complaining of flu-like symptoms.  

The woman, who was not identified, is listed in serious condition. Doctors have made a tentative diagnosis of bacterial meningitis. Namkung said a definitive diagnosis will be made sometime today. 

Meningitis is an infection of the brain and spinal fluid.  

The germ is transmitted through saliva or droplets from the nose. Engaging in any activity where saliva is exchanged can transmit the disease.  

The infectious period is three to four days and symptoms can appear between two and 10 days of exposure. Early detection and treatment with antibiotics is key to preventing serious illness or death. 

Casual contact or simply breathing the same air as an infected person is not enough to transfer the disease.  

Symptoms include sudden fever, headache and stiff neck sometimes accompanied by nausea and vomiting. 

Despite the family connection, Namkung said she has ruled out direct transmission of the illness from Phelps to the most recent case because the incubation period of 10 days had passed. It is more likely that the two contracted the disease from two different sources. 

Namkung said a group of people, associated with Phelps’ family, has been identified as the likely source of the disease. She said there was not enough known about the group to say what the group connection is.  

“They are mostly teenagers and young adults that engage in high-risk behavior like sharing cigarettes, joints, drinks and food,” Namkung said. 

She said members of the group may be having unprotected sex and using drugs like crack cocaine, both of which can transmit the infection. 

Arrietta Chakos, the city manager’s office chief of staff, said Berkeley is in a good position to stop the spread of the disease because of the city’s Health and Human Services Department. Since it is local, Chakos said it has connections with the community.  

“Our staff knows some of these people and that will make it a lot easier to help them,” she said. 

A city hot line will be staffed by nurses who will answer questions about the infection from 8 a.m. to 10 p.m. today and Sunday. The number is (510) 981-CITY (2489). 

There is also information on the city’s web site at  

The screening clinics will be held at two locations at different times over the weekend. 

Saturday, May 12 at Fire Station #1 at 2442 Eighth St. at Dwight from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m.  

Sunday, May 13 at Francis Albrier Community Center at 2800 Park St. from 1 to 5 p.m.