June 12, 1996 in Nation/World

Meningitis-Like Disease Strikes Again Three More Cases Of Bacterial Infection In Little More Than A Week

By The Spokesman-Review
 

An Orofino, Idaho, elementary school student is suspected of having the third case of a deadly bacterial infection reported in Idaho in little more than a week.

The boy, who authorities won’t identify, was hospitalized Sunday for treatment of meningococcemia - often mistakenly called meningitis. Several people in the community are being treated with antibiotics to prevent the spread of the infection.

If tests confirm the Orofino boy has meningococcemia, it will be the 15th case this year, triple the number found in Idaho five years ago.

A 12-year-old Idaho Falls girl was hospitalized in Salt Lake City last Thursday with strain B of meningococcemia, the only strain for which there is no vaccine. A 7-month-old Caldwell boy is luckier, spending just one day in the hospital before returning home. He has strain Y and is responding well to antibiotics.

Meningococcal disease took the life of 15-year-old Andy Moore of Weippe in May. It nearly killed University of Idaho sophomore Erin L. Nielson, who lost both legs and the tip of one finger. Both Moore and Nielson had strain C.

There have been 46 cases of meningococcal disease reported in Washington in 1996. Three people have died so far this year. Last year Washington state recorded 127 cases of meningococcal disease, the highest number since 1945, and seven deaths. Nine of the 1995 cases were in Spokane County.

“There are probably few diseases, and rightfully so, that raise such concern among health care professionals and parents because it’s so scary and because of what happened to Erin and Andy,” said physician Jesse Greenblatt, Idaho state epidemiologist.

The bacteria is carried in the nose and throats of humans and is spread by coughing and sneezing. Many people carry the bacteria without getting the disease.

Early symptoms include fever, chills, intense headache, confusion, mental dullness, nausea, vomiting and a stiff neck. The symptoms appear suddenly and worsen rapidly. Anyone with these symptoms should go to an emergency room or doctor’s office immediately.

If untreated, it is fatal between 40 percent and 50 percent of the time. Even when treated, it’s fatal in about 10 percent of the cases.

Because time is of the essence in treatment, people in rural areas without easy access to health care are at greatest risk, Greenblatt said.

Sheila Nielson, mother of 19-year-old Erin Nielson, is worried by the news. “That’s too many cases in North Idaho and nobody can tell me how or why,” Nielson said.

“I would like to know these families, so they know what they are going to go through,” she added.

Nielson would tell the families that during her daughter’s 94-day ordeal, doctors were reluctant to provide information. Nielson has learned more from a lengthy newspaper article she still carries with her than from the physicians.

Every estimate of how long Erin would be hospitalized was wrong. “It was another three weeks, and another three weeks, and another three weeks,” Nielson said. It would have been easier to deal with the pleasant surprise of getting out earlier than expected.

Erin Nielson was stricken with meningococcal disease in February. She returned to her Nampa home three weeks ago, after being hospitalized in Spokane and Salt Lake City.

She’s piloting a wheelchair with ease, shopping, going to movies and starting to deal with her new life, her mother said. There are prospects for her to walk again with artificial legs.

Now “I need her to heal emotionally,” Sheila Nielson said. “I want her to just cry.”

No one knows why the disease is increasing in Idaho, Utah, Oregon and Washington, said Idaho epidemiologist Greenblatt. “I suspect we are seeing more than the increase in population would merit,” he said.

There are five strains of meningococcal disease: A, B, C, W-135, and Y. Health departments in Oregon and Washington have determined strain B came to the area in 1990 or 1991 from South America, Greenblatt said.

Strain B surfaced in North Idaho in 1995, near Hauser Lake, Greenblatt said. A 12-year-old girl and a 9-year-old girl tested positive for the disease.

This year’s hot spots are in the Lewiston-Moscow-Orofino area and in the Rigby-Idaho Falls area, he said.

Overall, the rate of meningococcal disease is quite low in the United States. Sub-Saharan Africa is considered the world meningococcemia belt, reporting thousands of cases a year.

, DataTimes MEMO: Cut in the Spokane edition.

This sidebar appeared with the story: THE HOT SPOTS No one knows why the disease is increasing in Idaho, Utah, Oregon and Washington, said Idaho epidemiologist Jesse Greenblatt. “I suspect we are seeing more than the increase in population would merit,” he said. This year’s hot spots are in the Lewiston-Moscow-Orofino area and in the Rigby-Idaho Falls area.

Cut in the Spokane edition.

This sidebar appeared with the story: THE HOT SPOTS No one knows why the disease is increasing in Idaho, Utah, Oregon and Washington, said Idaho epidemiologist Jesse Greenblatt. “I suspect we are seeing more than the increase in population would merit,” he said. This year’s hot spots are in the Lewiston-Moscow-Orofino area and in the Rigby-Idaho Falls area.


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