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    Student improves in case linked to meningitis

    All four boys treated for the disease improve; two hope to go home soon.

    By AMY WIMMER and ED QUIOCO

    © St. Petersburg Times, published February 5, 2001


    A Largo High School student, suspected to be the fourth teenager to contract bacterial meningitis in the past nine days, continued to improve Sunday and was moved out of intensive care at Largo Medical Center.

    James Thomas, 15, has been in the hospital since Friday night, and his case has been labeled "presumptive bacterial meningitis" as officials await more test results.

    The contagious, potentially fatal disease previously struck two East Lake High School students and a 10th-grader at Clearwater Central Catholic High School.

    Pinellas health officials remain cautious in their approach to informing the public about the reports, saying they have no reason to think the East Lake cases are linked to the others.

    "I think it's just happenstance," said Dr. John Heilman, director of the Pinellas County Health Department.

    The two East Lake ninth-graders, who have not been identified, share a class and became ill about the same time. But determining who might have spread the disease is particularly difficult because, at any given time, 20 percent of people carry the meningococcus bacterium that causes this type of meningitis.

    Only a few get sick, and doctors don't know why. "Probably the source is something we'll never find," Heilman said.

    All four boys are progressively feeling better, Heilman said, and a couple hope to go home soon.

    Some immediate family members and close friends, including girlfriends, of the meningitis patients are taking antibiotics to ward off the disease, Heilman said.

    In determining who should take the antibiotics, Heilman said, the Health Department or the individual patients' doctors "would assess the degree of relationship that they described to the individual."

    Bacterial meningitis is an infection of the membrane surrounding the brain and spinal cord. The disease is spread through direct contact with saliva, such as kissing or sharing a drink or eating utensils. It has an incubation period of two to 10 days but typically shows itself within five days.

    Symptoms include a fever, severe headaches, a stiff neck and sometimes vomiting, unusual drowsiness or irritability. In later stages, symptoms may include seizures or a purplish rash.

    The peak months for meningitis cases are January, February and March, said Dr. Richard Hopkins, chief of the Florida Department of Health's bureau of epidemiology.

    That could be because this time of year also is when there are more cases of respiratory ailments, which wears down the body and could make it easier for bacteria to invade.

    The two principals at East Lake and Clearwater Central Catholic, where the first three cases were identified, wrote letters to parents, warning them about the infections and urging them to watch their children closely for symptoms. Barbara Thornton, principal at Largo High School, said she plans to do the same.

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