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Health Dept. Works to Allay Parents' Meningitis Fears

County health department, Toms River schools field more than 100 calls in wake of meningitis case at East Dover Elementary School

The Ocean County Health Department has received more than 100 phone calls from concerned parents, after a case of meningitis l was confirmed on Monday, officials said.

Health Department spokesperson Leslie D. Terjesen said department staff have been fielding calls all day from the parents, whom she described as calm and asking the kinds of questions that would be expected in this situation.

The affected student, whose name nor grade were released, was tested after the school nurse took the student in and and interim Assistant Superintendent Joseph A. Pizza called the health department on Monday. The school was thoroughly disinfected and a letter sent home with every student and posted on the Toms River Regional Schools website.

Terjesen said under the federal Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act, neither the school nor the health department can release any information that could potentially identify the affected student.

"We cannot violate the HIPAA laws, and we will not," she said.

"Toms River (the school district) has done exactly what it needed to do," Terjesen said, noting the district also has had the letter that went home to parents translated into Spanish because East Dover has a significant number of students whose parents speak Spanish.

"The Toms River schools have been extremely responsible," she said.

District spokesperson Tammi Millar on Monday said East Dover Elementary has been provided with hand sanitizers for each classroom and the Toms River Regional maintenance department was cleaning and sanitizing all impacted areas, including transportation.

The case of meningitis confirmed at the school is the first in Ocean County this year. Two cases, both in adults, were confirmed last spring, Terjesen said.

According to the national Centers for Disease Control, meningitis is an inflammation of the membranes that cover the brain or spinal cord. It can be caused by either a virus or one of a few types of bacteria.

Some forms of bacterial meningitis, the type in the East Dover case, are contagious. The bacteria can mainly be spread from person to person through the exchange of respiratory and throat secretions, such as coughing, kissing and sneezing.

The CDC website notes: "Fortunately, none of the bacteria that cause meningitis are as contagious as things like the common cold or the flu. Also, the bacteria are not spread by casual contact or by simply breathing the air where a person with meningitis has been."

The CDC says the bacteria that cause meningitis have spread to other people who have had close or prolonged contact with a patient with meningitis caused by Neisseria meningitidis (also called meningococcal meningitis) or Haemophilus influenzae type b (Hib). Hib was the leading cause of bacterial meningitis until the 1990s, but Hib vaccine is now given to all children as part of their routine immunizations.

Even after exposure to the bacteria, it is very unusual to get infected with the illness.  It takes 2-10 days before symptoms appear.

When a person becomes ill with meningitis, the symptoms may include fever, headache, nausea, vomiting, neck stiffness, and a rash.  These symptoms need immediate medical attention because the disease can progress rapidly.  Early treatment is important.

"Just like the flu or a cold, wash your hands. Cover your mouth when you cough. Don't share drinks," Terjesen said. "Disease prevention is disease prevention."

Parents who continue to have questions can call the county health department at 732-341-9700, extension 7515.

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