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Bacterial Meningitis Claims Teen; No New Cases Reported

September 25, 1998|HARRISON SHEPPARD

As students and teachers at a Cypress junior high school struggled to cope with the loss of an eighth-grader to bacterial meningitis, health officials said no new cases of the contagious disease have been reported among anyone who may have been exposed.

Ashley Williams, 13, of Anaheim died in the emergency room of UCI Medical Center in Orange on Wednesday morning, after going into cardiac arrest as she was being transported from West Anaheim Medical Center.

Dr. Hildy Meyers, medical director of communicable disease control and epidemiology at the county Health Care Agency, said tests confirmed that Ashley had the meningococcal bacteria, which resulted in both meningitis and an infection in her bloodstream.

That strain of bacteria is fatal in about 10% to 15% of cases, she said, and is carried harmlessly in portions of the population who show no symptoms at all. Meyers said it is difficult to tell what makes certain people susceptible to it; officials likely will never know exactly how Ashley contracted the illness.

"Most people, if exposed to this organism, would carry it for a while and never become ill," Meyers said.

Grief counselors and psychologists gathered at Lexington Junior High School on Thursday to help students and staff members cope with the sudden death of a girl who had seemed healthy only a few days before.

"There's a number of kids that had some real problems handling it," said teacher Anna Piercy, who taught Ashley in her art class. "At this age, this is something they don't believe happens to them."

She described Ashley as a quiet girl, who dressed well and was always well-mannered. "She was a very nice, polite, quiet young lady," Piercy said.

After learning of the girl's death, the school first identified her friends and close contacts, so they could be brought to their doctors for evaluation, Principal Lee Kellogg said. Members of her family, and her closest contacts, were prescribed an antibiotic as a precaution, although none have shown any symptoms so far, according to health officials.

An Orange County Health Care Agency representative met with school officials Wednesday to answer questions. The school sent information home to parents about the disease, and set a meeting Thursday for any extra questions from parents.

"It's really sad. This was so tragic," Kellogg said. "[She] was here in school on Monday and then died Wednesday morning."

Bacterial meningitis is usually spread through saliva, such as sharing someone's food or kissing. In Orange County this year, there have been 21 cases, with three deaths, Meyers said.

"The organism is typically found in the throat, so it's transmitted through sharing oral secretions," she said. "If you are concerned, you can avoid sharing other people's oral secretions by not drinking from the same glass, [or] taking a bite of food from something someone else has already bitten into."

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)

About Meningococcal Infection

It spreads by contact with an infected person's saliva. Examples include sharing food, utensils or anything that might be put in the mouth. Kissing is also a means of transmission. More about the infection:

SYMPTOMS

A combination of the following symptoms, along with progressively worsening health, should be given immediate medical attention:

* Sudden fever

* Severe headache

* Nausea (may include vomiting)

* Rash with pinpoint dots

* Stiff neck

PREVENTION

* Cover mouth and nose when coughing or sneezing.

* Avoid sharing eating utensils, food and beverages.

* Wash hands before eating and after using the restroom.

* If you live in the same household as an infected person or share food or drink with one, see your doctor about antibiotic treatment.

Source: Orange County Health Care Agency

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