A John F. Kennedy High School student is recovering at home after being diagnosed with meningococcal meningitis last week.
Parents received a letter from Principal Lorraine Poppe on May 9, alerting them to the diagnosis and advising steps to protect their children. Meningococcal meningitis is “a severe bacterial infection of the bloodstream or meninges,” the thin lining of the brain and spinal cord, according to the Nassau Health Department, which was advising Kennedy officials.
Kennedy takes in students from central and south Bellmore and south Merrick.
Poppe did not identify the student or his grade, but warned that any student who shared food, drink, a utensil or a cigarette, or kissed or in any way shared nasal or oral secretions with the student 10 days before May 3, must contact a physician immediately to start preventive treatment.
Harley Ginsberg, a junior at Kennedy High School and close friend of the student, said that she had started prophylactic treatment as a precaution. She added that the last time she heard from the student, he was leaving the hospital to recover at home.
Bellmore-Merrick Central High School Superintendent John DeTommaso confirmed this report on Monday, adding that he believed the student was doing well.
Preventive treatment is effective if given in time, but when “administered greater than 14 days after exposure to the individual is of limited or no value,” Poppe wrote, sourcing the Centers for Disease Control.
Symptoms can appear any time between two and 10 days after exposure, and often come on suddenly, according to the CDC.
Casual contact, such as that between students in a classroom, “is not usually significant enough to cause concern,” Poppe said.
Meningitis is caused by the meningococcus germ, which is spread by direct, close contact with nose or throat discharges of an infected person, according to Poppe.
Bacterial meningitis is relatively rare, the CDC’s website states. The agency reported about 4,100 cases of meningitis annually between 2003 and 2007. Of those, about 500 people died each year.
“Bacterial meningitis is very serious and can be deadly,” the CDC states. “Death can occur in as little as a few hours. Most people recover from meningitis. However, permanent disabilities (such as brain damage, hearing loss and learning disabilities) can result from the infection.”
As of September 2016, all New York state students were required to be vaccinated against meningococcal diseases, including meningitis. According to the Department of Health website, students entering the seventh, eighth and 12th grades are required to receive the vaccination as a shot.
DeTommaso said May 10 that district officials would not immediately investigate whether the infected student had been vaccinated. “Honestly, we’re just dealing with the situation as it occurs and as we are directed by the Nassau County Department of Health,” he said. “I think we may take a look at that after.”
Patti Wukovits, an East Islip mother who lost her 17-year-old daughter to bacterial meningitis in 2012, said that many parents are unaware there is a fifth strain of meningitis that the standard, state-mandated vaccine does not protect against.
Wukovits’s daughter, Kimberly Coffey, was in the last week of her senior year at East Islip High School when she contracted and died from the disease. “They told me in the emergency room what it was, and I said, ‘That’s not possible — she’s been vaccinated” against meningitis, Wukovits said in an interview. “But then they told me about” meningitis B.
“I’m a registered nurse, and I didn’t know about it,” she said.
Since then, Wukovits has made it her mission to inform parents about the fifth strain of meningitis, and the separate vaccine necessary to protect against it, founding the Kimberly Coffey Foundation to spread the word.
According to Wukovits, the meningitis B vaccine was made available in 2014, but is not yet required by the state for students.
“It’s just so important that parents know that their child is not fully protected,” she said. “They need to ask their doctor if their child has been vaccinated for meningitis, and if they say yes, take it a step further and ask if they’ve also received a separate meningitis B vaccine.”
“If it was available for Kimberly back then, I would have had her vaccinated, and she would still be here,” Wukovits said. “It was two years too late for her.”
According to the state health department, the Serogroup B meningococcal vaccine is available for teenagers and young adults. But the B strain vaccine is not routinely recommended for all teenagers, so it is not required for school attendance. Rather, it is given to people ages 10 and up who have certain medical conditions. It may be given at the same time as the meningococcal conjugate vaccine.