Teen girl dies of bacterial meningitis

Arundel officials seek those who had contact

April 12, 1999|By Sarah Pekkanen and Heather Dewar | Sarah Pekkanen and Heather Dewar,SUN STAFF

A 16-year-old junior at Annapolis High School died Saturday of bacterial meningitis, prompting Anne Arundel County health officials yesterday to seek people who had come in close contact with her and might have been exposed to the disease.

The student, Cara Margaret Petrini, was taken to Sinai Hospital in Baltimore on Friday, after complaining of flu-like symptoms last week.

The girl "was relatively better for a few days," said Dr. Sohail Qarni, a county Health Department consultant for communicable diseases. "Then, she had more severe symptoms on April 8 and 9."

She was diagnosed with bacterial meningitis Friday at Sinai, Qarni said. She died at 6: 45 a.m. Saturday, hospital officials said.

The disease is not highly contagious and students who simply sat next to her should not panic, health officials said. But they are trying to identify those at risk, including anyone who shared eating or drinking utensils with her or kissed her.

Timely action is critical because the disease strikes swiftly, Qarni warned.

The health official was among those who broke the news to Petrini's friends. "They are totally shocked and devastated," Qarni said.

Students are also scared, he said, but if antibiotics are administered, "chances of the disease are very highly minimized."

Six months ago, when a Towson University student was hospitalized with meningitis, nearly 250 students were given antibiotics as preventive medicine. But Qarni said the department did not plan to give out mass doses of antibiotics.

Mary Stroop, president of the high school's parent teacher student organization, said she has not gotten any calls from worried parents, but expected it would trigger discussion at a meeting of the organization scheduled for at 7 p.m. today at the high school on Riva Road.

"Of course everybody is concerned and upset that this happened but I don't think anybody's going to panic about it," said Stroop, whose son is a senior at the high school.

"If my son had come down with a headache or a fever last week, I would have attributed it to the flu," she said. "But if he came down with a headache or a fever this week, I'd get him tested immediately."

Qarni endorsed that plan, noting that diagnosis of bacterial meningitis can be complicated because it is rare and symptoms often mimic those of the flu. Warning signs -- which often begin two to 10 days after exposure -- include high fever, nausea, severe headaches, stiffness or pains in the neck, shoulders and back, and a rash of small red spots.

Because Petrini's death occurred over the weekend, neither parents nor faculty had been officially notified by late Sunday, and some were caught by surprise.

"That's a shock. I didn't know anything about it," said Assistant Principal Steve Levy, reached at home yesterday evening.

Principal Joyce Smith declined to comment yesterday.

Jane Doyle, the spokeswoman for Anne Arundel County public schools, said she didn't know what steps the school has taken to deal with students' sorrow and parents' concerns.

Doyle said whenever a student contracts a dangerous, contagious illness, normal procedure is to give each student a letter to take to their parents, explaining what happened and what precautions to take. That letter should go out today, she said.

When students die suddenly, an announcement usually is made over the school's public-address system."We bring in a crisis intervention team to be in the school for the first few days after the death," Doyle said. "Counselors and psychologists are available to talk to students."

In March 1997, about 1,000 students at Loyola College were vaccinated against meningitis after Gerry Case, a 19-year old player on the school's soccer team, died of the disease. Two months later, meningitis killed Steven Arrowood, 19, a freshman at Harford Community College in Bel Air.

Steven Chilton, an 8-year-old pupil at Worthington Elementary School in Ellicott City, died of a related illness in March 1998. Tests failed to establish the exact cause of his death, but doctors suspected it was an infection of meningococcus, the bacterium that causes meningitis.

Pub Date: 4/12/99

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