Fair warning to parents Howard County: Schools acted properly this time by detailing possible meningitis case.

March 04, 1998

THE DEATH of 8-year-old Steven Chilton is sad enough for his classmates at Worthington Elementary School in Ellicott City. The boy died Sunday after initially being treated for a high fever. Parents, teachers and school counselors have the difficult task of helping pupils deal with the trauma that accompanies the loss of young life.

But the sadness was mixed with concern this time because of fear -- still unconfirmed -- that young Steven died of bacterial meningitis, a highly contagious and deadly disease.

Fortunately, school officials have learned their lesson about the importance of conveying timely, detailed information to parents and students about such a potential public health emergency.

Errors in judgment about how to disseminate this information must be made on the side of caution. That was not the thinking in October, when a 14-year-old Glenelg High student was diagnosed with bacterial meningitis. That student recovered, but not before confusion rattled nerves in western Howard. Some residents complained, with justification, that administrators offered too little information for them to act decisively. With secondhand, cryptic messages from administrators, one parent said he had only "teen-age hearsay."

A school official said then: "We were unable to get the information out because we just weren't sure a diagnosis had been made. We didn't want to inflame things unnecessarily."

That approach disregarded the fact that parents wanted to know whether a child might have suffered from meningitis and who the child was. When a deadly disease lurks, this becomes a public, not a private, health matter.

At Worthington, schools officials took the right approach. Although doctors at Howard County General Hospital said they doubted meningitis caused Steven's death, the school properly sent county Health Department letters to parents to give warning and advice. The letters contained enough information to enable parents to take precautions, such as procuring antibiotics for prevention.

Warning parents of a potentially deadly disease is not like yelling "fire" in a crowded theater. When their children's health and lives are involved, parents would rather know too much than too little.

Pub Date: 3/04/98

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