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All Children's Hospital contacts patients' families after death of therapist with meningitis-related infection

ST. PETERSBURG — All Children's Hospital on Tuesday began contacting about a dozen families whose children were exposed to an outpatient therapist who died Monday. The longtime employee had a bloodstream infection that can lead to meningitis.

Hospital officials said preliminary cultures suggest the employee had a bacterial infection that is often fatal, even before it crosses from the bloodstream to cause inflammation in the brain and spinal cord.

To prevent an outbreak, they are offering antibiotic therapy to exposed patients and family members who may have come into contact with the employee, who had not been scheduled to work for the past week. All Children's didn't know she was sick until she called in Monday — hours before her death — to say she thought she had the flu.

The infection she appears to have had is far less contagious than the common cold. It is transmitted by direct contact — kissing, sharing drinking glasses or coughing near another person. So the number of patients possibly exposed was limited, hospital officials stressed.

"As a therapist, she would have been touching patients," said Dr. Juan Dumois, director of pediatric infectious diseases at the hospital, noting that those at greatest risk for contagion were the therapist's immediate family.

"I'm less concerned about the patients, but we can't say the patient risk is zero and that's why we're going through all this effort," he said.

Hospital officials are identifying other staffers who came in close contact with the therapist to offer them antibiotics, too.

But these employees are not considered a risk to spread the disease, Dumois said. He noted that antibiotic treatment is effective at stopping the spread of the bacteria — and relatively harmless for the recipient. Children get two days of the drug Rifampin. Most adults need only a single dose of Cipro, best known as the anthrax treatment.

All Children's spokeswoman Ann Miller said the families of the exposed patients can expect to receive a call or voice mail message.

She declined to say more about the employee's work or where she lived, citing patient privacy laws. But she noted that the employee was concerned for her patients, calling in to let the hospital know that she wasn't feeling well and wouldn't see patients later this week.

"What we're doing," Miller said, "is an extension of those protective instincts."

Letitia Stein can be reached at lstein@sptimes.com or (813) 226-3322.

.Q&A

A primer on meningitis and antibiotics

What is meningitis?

An inflammation of the membranes that cover the brain and spinal cord. The All Children's employee had a bacterial blood infection that can lead to meningitis.

What are the symptoms?

High fever, headache and stiff neck are early symptoms of meningitis, and can be mistaken for flu. Later signs include a rash — usually on the arms, legs or torso — or large, irregularly shaped purple splotches.

Why are antibiotics given to people possibly exposed to meningitis?

Antibiotics, administered early, can prevent some types from spreading and infecting other people.

What about vaccines?

There are several safe and effective vaccines to protect against different types of bacterial meningitis. The meningococcal vaccine that would protect against the infection raising concern at All Children's usually is given to adolescents and adults.

How contagious is bacterial meningitis?

The bacteria can mainly be spread from person to person through coughing, kissing and sneezing. None of the bacteria that cause meningitis are as contagious as things like the common cold or the flu.

Sources: U.S. Centers for Disease Control, All Children's Hospital

All Children's Hospital contacts patients' families after death of therapist with meningitis-related infection 03/29/11 [Last modified: Tuesday, March 29, 2011 10:37pm]

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