Earlier alert on meningitis

School notification: Health officials in Anne Arundel could learn from tough experience in Howard.

April 14, 1999

THE HEALTH department in Anne Arundel County should reconsider its policy of waiting until test results are final before alerting school administrators and the community about possible public health problems.

Health officials said nothing to school leaders or the community Friday when preliminary tests indicated that an Annapolis High School junior was suffering from bacterial meningitis, an infection that inflames the membranes surrounding the brain. The reason, they explained, was to prevent alarming residents unnecessarily.

As it turned out, 16-year-old Cara Margaret Petrini was indeed suffering from the disease. She died early Saturday at Sinai Hospital in Baltimore.

This is a difficult time for the teen-ager's friends and classmates at Annapolis High as well as her family. And it would not have been easier for them had they known the nature of her illness. But her classmates and their parents should have been informed.

Howard County learned a similar lesson 18 months ago.

A student at Glenelg High was also diagnosed with bacterial meningitis. Fortunately, he recovered, but parents of other students were upset that school administrators failed to inform them about a potentially grave health problem.

Six months later, when the untimely death of an elementary schoolchild in Ellicott City was thought to be from meningitis, officials scrambled to notify students. They even held up school buses to buy time to print notices for students to take home.

In Annapolis, schools officials should have known about the preliminary test results so they could inform parents, who could then have their children evaluated by a physician or watch for symptoms.

Schools and parents cannot make these decisions unless the health department changes its policy and provides critical information with more urgency.

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