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Meningococcus Report Spurs Flood of Calls

TIMES STAFF WRITERS

Orange County hospitals were flooded with hundreds of calls from concerned parents Saturday, one day after county health officials revealed that two children died from an aggressive and contagious bacterial infection within the last month.

Officials said Saturday there were no new confirmed cases of the rare disease, known as meningococcus. But Chapman Medical Center in Orange reported that an 18-year-old man suffering from an unidentified strain of meningitis and a 48-year-old woman with a case of “possible meningitis” were admitted into its emergency room Friday night.

Orange County Public Health Director Hugh Stallworth expressed strong doubts that the Orange cases are related to the meningococcus episodes at Costa Mesa High School, which claimed the life of a 12-year-old girl and left a seventh-grade classmate in critical condition.

Stallworth said meningococcus is most often spread through contact with an infected person’s saliva, by sharing food and drinks, or through hours of direct contact with someone sneezing or coughing.

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“It seems unlikely that there would be that kind of connection, unless there is a connection we don’t know about,” Stallworth said. “You have to have very close contact, such as living in the same household or being in the same classroom.”

The distance between Costa Mesa and Orange and the age differences of the most recent victims also make authorities doubtful there is a link, he said.

Chapman Medical Center spokeswoman Trish Bartel also said tests are being conducted to determine if victims’ illnesses are related to the Costa Mesa incidents. Bartel declined to name the two patients but said they are in stable condition.

Orange County recorded 33 cases of meningococcus last year, resulting in three deaths. Nationally, an average 3,000 cases of the disease are reported each year, with a 10% to 15% mortality rate.

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Meningococcus is easily treated with antibiotics. But the disease can rapidly ravage a body’s organs and immune system if not treated promptly. Meningococcus is caused when bacteria spreads through the bloodstream. It differs from meningitis, which is caused by bacteria spreading to the brain or spinal cord.

Those especially at risk include babies and young children in group settings, such as day care, people with compromised immune systems, and people with no spleens.

Orange County health officials stress there is no need for the public to panic. They announced the Costa Mesa High School incidents to alert the public to take seriously many of the flu-like symptoms that accompany the disease.

Symptoms include sudden high fever and vomiting, intense headaches, a stiff neck and a spreading pink rash accompanied by bruises.

Last week, the disease claimed the life of Costa Mesa High School student Kori Emer, a 12-year-old soccer player who feel ill Wednesday evening and died a day later. A seventh grade classmate remained in critical condition at Children’s Hospital of Orange County on Saturday night, though her doctor said she is improving.

“The more time she has under her belt, the better we feel,” said Dr. Paul Lubinsky. “I am hopeful she will have a full recovery.”

Beside the classmates, an 8-year-old Orange County girl died from the disease last month.

The cases prompted a steady stream of calls and visits to local hospitals, especially those around Costa Mesa High School.

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At Hoag Memorial Hospital Presbyterian in Newport Beach, seven people with possible meningitis symptoms or fearing they had been exposed to the bacteria sought medical treatment Thursday and Friday, said spokeswoman Maureen Mazzatenta. Most of those people were given antibiotics, she said.

More than 700 people--mostly concerned parents--called a Children’s Hospital of Orange County hotline Saturday seeking information about the disease.

“The phones have been ringing all day,” said nurse Margaret Safallo, one of four people staffing the hotline. “We’ve had calls from San Diego, San Clemente, Redlands, Northridge, Bellflower, you name it.”

Safallo said most callers noticed that their children have one or more of the disease symptoms. In most cases, nurses determined the symptoms cited by the parents did not describe the disease.

In a few cases, they urged the parents to take their child to an emergency room to be examined, Safallo said.

Health officials said they were encouraged that no new cases were confirmed Saturday.

“If we go for the next several days and into mid-week without more cases from the school, we could be out of the woods,” Stallworth said. “We expected to see less and less of it as the weather gets warmer in the spring.”

Also contributed to this report were Times staff writers Thao Hua and Tina Nguyen.

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