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Hundreds attend clinicsfor meningitis screenings

By Jon Mays Daily Planet staff
Tuesday May 15, 2001

An aggressive public information campaign spurred by the recent hospitalization of a 19-year-old woman with bacterial meningitis seems to be working as hundreds of west Berkeley residents and scores of students attended clinics to be screened and treated. 

Over the weekend, Fred Medrano, director of Berkeley Health and Human Services, said more than 500 people attended neighborhood clinics to find out more about meningitis and see if they should receive a dose of the drugs Cipro or Rifanpin. The drugs kills all meningitis bacteria that may be in the body already, but does not protect the taker from picking up the bacteria again after 24 hours, said Stephanie Lopez, communications director for the city of Berkeley. 

“You can’t share a joint and think you are okay, you’re still at risk,” Lopez said. 

Kimi Sakashita, Berkeley High School associate health clinic director, said around 75  

students stopped by after a morning assembly described the types of behavior that could put them at risk for meningitis.  

“I’m hella nervous,” said one student as he lined up for a consultation with health clinic staff. 

Most students said they wanted to take the pill just to be on the safe side. 

“Everyone’s going around sharing drinks and French kissing and all that,” said Berkeley High student Shamiya Henesley. “I think everyone really needs to take responsibility and really get tested and screened.” 

Other students said the bathrooms at the high school are so unsanitary that they worried about picking up the bacteria that way. 

Sakashita said that is not the case and that meningitis can only be spread through direct contact of saliva, blood or other bodily fluid. The disease can be transmitted by shared cigarettes, pipes, drinks or food. It can also be transmitted through kissing and sex (including oral sex). 

Health officials have been trying to get information out since Friday’s incident. The woman, whose identity has not been officially released, was in critical condition over the weekend, but was listed in good condition yesterday, said Alta Bates Hospital spokesperson Carolyn Kemp.  

The case is the second in Berkeley this month. On May 1, 9-year-old Oxford School student Nambi Phelps died from an infection of bacterial meningitis. Although it was reported that Phelps and the woman hospitalized Friday knew each other, health officials say the cases are unrelated.  

Meningitis is an infection of the brain and spinal fluid. 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 and death. Symptoms include sudden fever, headache and stiff neck sometimes accompanied by nausea and vomiting. 

There is a vaccine for meningitis but Berkeley Health Officer Dr. Poki Namkung said it does not take effect for two weeks and would only be used in an outbreak. An outbreak, Namkung said, is characterized as three cases in three months that translates to 10 cases per 100,000 people.  

Now, Medrano said that the health department is actively pursuing a group of 100 people associated with the young woman who engage in “high-risk” behavior.  

While the disease is spread through high-risk behavior like sex and drugs, Medrano said it’s hard to pigeon hole it since it is spread by more mundane ways as well. 

“Practices stem from regular family life like sharing a toothbrush to high-risk behaviors,” he said. “But we want to get good information to people, Now that we’ve had two cases, there’s a great deal of public information with the main message of prevention.” 

Now that the word is out about the disease, Berkeley PTA Council President Mark Copeland said there is little else to do. 

“Parents are ready to volunteer but there’s really nothing to do. It’s a foe that we can’t reach out and grab. It’s one of those things that we keep watching,” Copeland said, adding that he took his son to the doctor on Friday. “We’re watching our kids closely and taking them to the doctor if there is any question at all.”