Girl's death brings worry

Students ask advice from nurses on risk of meningitis spread

Teen-ager died Saturday

Education officials wonder why illness notification delayed

April 13, 1999|By Kris Antonelli | Kris Antonelli,SUN STAFF

About three dozen Annapolis High School students -- concerned they have been exposed to bacterial meningitis that killed their classmate over the weekend -- sought advice from nurses in the school yesterday who were searching for anyone who had close contact with the girl.

Cara Margaret Petrini, a junior, died of the disease at 6: 45 a.m. Saturday at Sinai Hospital in Baltimore. As county health department nurses interviewed students and counselors comforted grieving students, school officials were annoyed and wondering why the health department had not notified them Friday when it became apparent the teen-ager had the disease.

"We have gotten courtesy calls in the past from them about things like 911 incidents," said school spokesman Michael Walsh. "We don't understand why we weren't this time and we are looking into it. We have had a good relationship with them."

According to health department officials, Petrini, 16, who lived with her family in the 300 block of Washington St. in Annapolis, became ill with flu-like symptoms last week. Although she improved, she had more severe symptoms April 8 and 9. Initial test re sults on her spinal fluid that doctors received Friday afternoon showed she probably had meningitis, said Dr. Katherine Farrell of the Anne Arundel County Health Department.

Farrell said the health department notified the school nurse -- an employee of the health department -- about 1: 30 p.m. Friday. But since the tests were preliminary, the nurse was not required by the health department to notify school officials or Principal Joyce Smith, said Gene Saderholm, county health department program director for school health services.

"I received a call at 1: 30 p.m., and was told that we had a suspected case of meningitis," she said. "I have worked with schools for a long time, and usually you wait [to notify school officials] until it is confirmed. It's hard to take something like this back."

Farrell said the department "presumed" it was meningitis based on the preliminary test results. Final test results came back from the lab Saturday after Petrini died.

School Superintendent Carol S. Parham was not formally notified of the girl's death, but found out when she, by chance, ran into Frances Phillips, the county's chief health officer, Saturday at a parents' seminar at Annapolis Middle School, Walsh said.

Health department officials began interviewing Petrini's parents and friends Friday to determine where she had been and who could have been exposed to the disease, which is spread through direct saliva contact, such as eating and drinking utensils or sharing a cigarette. It can also be spread through the air if an infected person coughs or sneezes on another person, Farrell said.

Saderholm said school nurses called the parents of about 15 students to recommend that they see their family doctor for a determination of whether they had sufficiently close contact to be given antibiotics.

Farrell said health workers interviewed more than 100 people -- including family members, classmates and friends outside school -- and that she expects about 20 to be put on antibiotics.

"But the numbers are pretty vague right now because not only are we talking and advising people, but those who think they have been exposed could also be going to their doctors," she said.

The health department is faxing forms to pediatricians and family doctors in the county as well as to clinics asking them to notify the department if they have treated anyone for bacterial meningitis.

Also yesterday, Smith sent home a letter to parents telling them that while bacterial meningitis is not highly contagious and routine classroom contacts are not usually at risk, anyone who believes they have had close contact with the teen-ager should contact a doctor immediately.

A fact sheet describing the symptoms -- high fever, nausea and vomiting, severe headache, stiffness and pains in the neck, shoulders and back and bright red rash of spots -- was attached to the letter.

"The kids have been pretty calm today," she said. "I think they do understand about the disease and they have been coming to the office or to the nurse to ask their questions and they seem satisfied with the answers and go back to class."

Counselors and school psychologists were also available yesterday to comfort grieving students.

Mary Stroop, president of the school's parent, teacher and student organization, said she has not received calls from worried parents. She said a representative from the health department was to attend the regularly scheduled PTA meeting last night at the school.

"Of course everyone is concerned, but i don't think there is a really panic-stricken group out there," she said. "I am sure anytime in the next couple of weeks anyone who gets a headache or an ache or pain will be more worried about it then they were before."

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