Health

Elementary school student in Kotzebue diagnosed with bacterial meningitis

State health officials are investigating a case of bacterial meningitis diagnosed in a Kotzebue elementary-school student Saturday.

The Monday announcement of the June Nelson Elementary School student's diagnosis came less than 24 hours after another announcement about the death of a student from the same school over the weekend.

Local and state officials wouldn't confirm Monday if the student diagnosed with meningitis was the same student who died, citing patient privacy laws.

In a Monday letter posted on the school's Facebook page, Alaska Department of Health and Social Services nurse consultant Donna Fearey said "a child who was a student at June Nelson" had been diagnosed with the disease. Fearey said the disease, caused when a common nasal bacterium enters the bloodstream, can cause serious or fatal illness.

"Fortunately, we see this very rarely, with less than five cases per year in Alaska," Fearey wrote.

The Maniilaq Association, which operates a health center in Kotzebue, said in a statement that the case had been confirmed Sunday evening.

A U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention fact sheet on meningococcal disease says it is fatal in about 10 to 15 percent of all cases, even with treatment. Nationwide cases have been on the decline over the past 20 years, from a peak of about 3,500 annually in the late 1990s to fewer than 1,000 by 2012.

In the DHSS letter to school parents and staff, Fearey said that symptoms of bacterial meningitis can include fever, rash, severe headaches, nausea, a stiff neck or "any other unusual symptoms."

"Public Health has already identified the close household contacts of this child who are at greatest risk of getting sick, and who require preventative treatment," Fearey wrote. "Students, staff and teachers are not considered close contacts that would require antibiotic therapy. Persons without close contact are not at increased risk and do not need preventative antibiotic treatment."

About 400 students are enrolled at the school, according to Terry Martin, the district's acting superintendent. Martin deferred most questions on the diagnosis to state officials Monday. The school wasn't closed in response to the diagnosis, but parents can opt to keep their children home.

"School is open; it's a safe place for students," Martin said. "We respect parents' rights with respect as far as their students attending or not."

Maniilaq Association officials urged anyone showing symptoms consistent with meningitis to immediately visit the Maniilaq Health Center's emergency room in Kotzebue. Anyone with questions can call DHSS's Section of Epidemiology at 907-269-8000 or Public Health Nursing at 907-442-7144.

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