CDC studies bacterial meningitis case in Kotzebue

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KOTZEBUE, Alaska (KTUU) 5 p.m. UPDATE:

Specimens from a child who died in Kotzebue this week are being studied at the Arctic Investigations Program, a branch of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Anchorage.

Researchers are trying to identify what strain of bacteria infected the child and whether a vaccine could have prevented the death, according to a state epidemiologist.

State health officials on Monday confirmed that a student at June Nelson Elementary School in Kotzebue had invasive meningococcal, a form of bacterial meningitis.

The rare but potentially fatal disease is caused by Neisseria meningitides, a common bacteria found in the nose. On rare occasions, the bacteria penetrates the mucosal barriers in the nose and enters the bloodstream, causing inflammation to the tissue surrounding the brain and spinal cord. Symptoms include fever, rash, severe headache, stiff neck and nausea, according to state health officials. Besides death, it can cause brain damage, hearing loss, or learning disabilities.

Neither the principal at June Elementary School nor the acting superintendent of the Northwest Arctic School District would confirm that bacterial meningitis killed the student. But in a Facebook post on the school’s website on Sunday, school officials said a student died on Saturday.

“Our thoughts go out to the family as we collectively mourn their loss,” wrote Dr. Annemarie O’Brien, superintendent.

O’Brien was not available for comment on Monday. Acting superintendent Terry Martin referred KTUU to a letter issued Monday by the state Division of Public Health, confirming that a student at June Nelson Elementary School had been diagnosed with bacterial meningitis.

Kotzebue’s police chief said first responders went to family’s home on Saturday at 12: 46 p.m. in response to a medical emergency and transported a patient to Maniilaq Medical Center. The first responders were later treated with antibiotics to help prevent them from contracting meningitis, said Chief Eric Swisher.

People who were in close contact with the child have also been given antibiotics, said Dawnell Smith, a spokeswoman for the Alaska Department of Health and Social Services.

Students, staff and teachers are the school are not considered close contacts that would require antibiotics, according to O’Brien’s letter.

Bacterial meningitis is spread through droplets of oral secretions such as saliva or mucus. The risk of transmission is low but anyone in close proximity to an infected person is advised to take antibiotics.
Medical professionals don’t understand why the bacteria that causes meningitis can be present in some people’s noses and cause no harm while in others it can enter the blood and turn deadly.

“That’s why it’s one of the scariest diseases because it’s not known why this would be fine in one person and not in another,” said epidemiologist Louisa Castrodale.

Viral meningitis is more common and is often less severe, with most people getting better on their own, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Vaccines are available to help prevent some forms of bacterial meningitis. There are no vaccines to protect against non-polio enteroviruses, the most common causes of viral meningitis, according to the CDC.

Alaska experiences less than five cases per year of meningitis on average, according to the Division of Public Health.


A student at June Nelson Elementary School in Kotzebue was diagnosed with bacterial meningitis, a rare but serious disease, the state Health Department announced today. The condition's formal name is invasive meningococcal but a spokeswoman for the Alaska Department of Health Social Service says it is accurate to say this was a case of bacterial meningitis.

The Kotzebue school district said a student at the elementary school died on Saturday. Officials would not say if the deceased child was the same student diagnosed with meningitis, citing health privacy laws.

The Department's Division of Public Health issued a letter to staff, parents and guardians on Monday informing them of the diagnosis. The school had posted about the death on Facebook Sunday and said health officials were investigating.

The Division of Public Health said the disease is caused by Neisseria meningitides, a common bacterium found among many other bacteria in noses. On rare occasions if the bacterium penetrates mucosal barriers in the nose and enters the bloodstream, it can rapidly cause serious and even fatal illness.

[Centers for Disease Control information on Neisseria meningitides]

Health officials say bacterial meningitis is very rare with fewer than five cases a year in Alaska.

People who are close to the infected person are at the most risk of contracting the disease. Antibiotics are the recommended treatment. The Public Health division has identified the child’s close household members.

"Those in close contact with the person were given preventative antibiotic treatment," said Dawnell Smith, public health division spokeswoman.

Students, staff and teachers are not considered close contacts who would require antibiotic therapy, according to the letter.

The school’s principal John Crabb referred questions to the Acting Superintendent of the Northwest Arctic School District, Terry Martin. Martin said he had no comment about the case and would not identify the deceased child’s age or gender.

Symptoms of the disease can include fever, rash, severe headache, nausea and stiff neck.

Anyone with questions should contact a health care provider or the Alaska Division of Public Health, Epidemiology Section, at 907-269-8000.

Kotzebue is located in Northwest Alaska about 30 miles north of the Arctic Circle.

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