Meningitis medication provided for entire school Boy's death is followed by near-panic

April 08, 1993|By Mark Bomster | Mark Bomster,Staff Writer

Frightened parents at Yorkwood Elementary School in northeast Baltimore yesterday persuaded city health officials to provide medication to every pupil following Tuesday's suspected meningitis death of a Yorkwood first-grader.

The city Health Department will be at the school auditorium as of 9 a.m. today, to provide the oral antibiotics to any parent concerned that a child might have come into contact with 6-year-old Donte Brown.

But health officials continue to insist that only those who came into "intimate contact" with the boy need the preventive medication, including his family and classmates.

"Frankly, it's not necessary in terms of public health," said Dr. Peter Beilenson, the city's health commissioner, speaking of his decision to widely distribute the antibiotic rifampin, a decision made after a raucous meeting with angry parents. "You really don't need to to be concerned if you're the parent of a child in another classroom."

Near-panic erupted yesterday after news reports that Donte may have died of bacterial meningitis, a contagious and potentially deadly brain inflammation that mostly strikes young people.

Although complete autopsy and laboratory test results were pending as of last night, health authorities suspect the bacteria Neisseria Meningitidis, which can result in a deadly blood infection, meningitis, or other conditions.

A partial report from the state medical examiner's office last night revealed evidence of a blood infection, but said tests were still being done to identify the organism.

"We're still treating it very much as if this is meningitis," Dr. Beilenson had said earlier yesterday.

Meningitis symptoms can include high fever, nausea and vomiting, severe headache, stiffness and pains in the neck, shoulders and back, and a skin rash of small, bright red spots.

Nationally, about 11,000 to 12,000 people annually are infected with bacterial meningitis, and about 10 percent die, said Bob Howard, a spokesman for the federal Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta. As of March 27 of this year, 11 confirmed cases had been reported in Maryland, he said. Last year, there were 37 cases in Maryland, including a child at Holabird Elementary School in Baltimore.

Though deadly, the infection is less contagious than some other common diseases, including chicken pox, said Richard W. Dunning, director of the Health Department's Bureau of Disease Control. He said it is spread only by direct contact, such as kissing, drinking from the same cup as an infected child, or being coughed upon.

Reacting to the risk factors, health officials originally had planned to provide antibiotics only to Donte's parents, brother and sister, and about 40 of his immediate classmates. Those classmates began receiving the medication yesterday. Though none of Donte's family appears to be sick, his brother has been hospitalized for observation. Dr. Beilenson said the meningitis bacteria have a two- to 10-day incubation period from the time of exposure, and those infected generally show symptoms within about four days of exposure.

"It's unlikely anyone is going to come down with this now, even if they were exposed," he said, noting that students have been on spring break since Friday.

But those assurances weren't enough to satisfy jittery parents, worried about children outside of Donte's class who might have come into contact with the boy.

"They didn't seem like they were taking it seriously," said Bernadette Foster, a parent. "You don't know which of the school members were playing with this kid."

Meanwhile, Donte's father mourned his son as a vivacious, playful youngster who liked swimming, baseball and math class.

"I remember his smile, his pleasant attitude; he was always nice toward people," said Dana Brown. "He was just a bright little boy."

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