Southern California teacher dies of meningitis

The Associated Press
Saturday June 02, 2001

REDLANDS — A first-grade teacher died suddenly from meningococcal disease but her students were at little risk of contracting the bacterial infection, officials said Friday. 

Barbara Schroeder, 54, of Redlands, died at 3 a.m. Thursday, about 12 hours after arriving at Redlands Community Hospital, spokeswoman Jane Dreher said. 

The mother of three taught at McKinley Elementary School. On Friday, flags flew at half-staff and counselors were on campus to help children deal with the shock of losing their teacher overnight, said Ken Tolar, a spokesman for Redlands Unified School District. 

Classes continued with a substitute teacher. Youngsters at the school 70 miles east of Los Angeles put up a poster with hand-painted red hearts and the message: “McKinley rules! Mrs. Schroeder was the best!” 

On Thursday, the school sent letters home with all 400 of its students to notify parents of Schroeder’s death. Included was public health material on meningococcal disease, a rare, rapidly progressing infection of the bloodstream. 

Typical symptoms include a sudden fever combined with a headache and a stiff neck, often accompanied by nausea and vomiting. A purplish rash may develop. 

The illness can only be passed along through contact with the nose or throat discharges of an infected person. It is treatable with antibiotics. 

The bacteria that cause the illness cannot live outside the body for more than a few minutes. 

“If the organisms are coughed onto a desk or toy, for example, they will soon die,” said a letter from school Principal Toni Bristow. “They are not spread by casual contact or by simply breathing the air near a person.” 

“Our students are not at risk unless they had had some type of very close personal contact and our understanding is that they’re at no greater risk than anyone else in the community,” said Cindy Andrews, a school district spokeswoman. 

Kim Woods, a San Bernardino County public health epidemiologist, said those most at risk would be immediate family members who might have shared a drink or a kiss with an infected person. 

Typically, there are 300 to 400 cases of meningitis a year in California, state health officials say. Meningitis killed three people in the San Francisco Bay area this spring, including two students, and sickened several others. 

The county sees a handful of cases each year, Woods said. 

But the severity of the disease and the rapidity with which it develops make it especially scary for parents. 

There is “no rhyme or reason why some people become sick and some don’t,” she said. “That’s why it is so sad. This one will strike healthy people.”