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California and the West

Epidemic Unlikely Despite Student's Death, District Says


SANTA ANA — Officials at an Orange County middle school sought to reassure parents Tuesday that no epidemic is imminent after the death of a 14-year-old student from meningococcal infection, a rare but contagious bacterial disease.

Lauren Burke, an eighth-grader at Hewes Middle School, died Friday after being hospitalized the week before with flu-like symptoms and diagnosed with probable meningococcal disease. The virulent bacterial infection, which targets the blood and spinal systems, is spread through contact with the mucus or saliva of an infected person.

Health officials said the disease infects about one in 100,000 people annually in the United States. Orange County has an average of 30 meningococcal cases a year, with one to four of those being fatal, Orange County Health Care Agency officials said, though last year there were 23 cases resulting in six deaths. In Los Angeles County last year, there were 73 cases reported, of which 11 were fatal.

Because the incubation period for the disease has passed with no new cases reported, "we should be out of the woods," said Mark Eliot, a spokesman for Tustin Unified School District.

A team of psychologists and counselors spent much of the day in the school library helping youngsters cope with their grief. By day's end, Eliot said, about 30 students had received counseling.

"What we're doing is allowing them to talk about their feelings," said Connie Golden, a school psychologist who was part of the team.

"It's a disease that strikes fear in the heart of any normal human being," said Dr. Hildy Myers, director of communicable disease control and epidemiology for Orange County.

To help calm those fears, school officials have sent home letters outlining symptoms of the disease, including the sudden onset of fever, intense headache, and nausea or vomiting. They also detailed precautions, such as covering the mouth when coughing or sneezing, washing hands frequently and refraining from sharing food and beverages.

"What we're stressing," Eliot said, "is simple hygiene."

Mental health was as much of a concern Tuesday, as students at Hewes gathered to remember their friend.

"A lot of people have puffy eyes," said Issa Reyna, 13, who was in a class with Lauren. "She sat right next to me. It's just weird that she's not going to be here any more."

Jennifer Kingsley, another eighth-grader and a friend of the stricken teenager, said her grief was mingled with regret.

"Lauren was always nice to everyone," she said. "She gave people hugs a lot. I'm really depressed and sad. I feel guilty because I wish I could have given her one more hug, one more smile. I wish I could have been a better friend."

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