Sickness scare earns R.I. kids another day off from school

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CRANSTON, R.I. (AP) – State officials reported no new cases of meningitis or encephalitis on Friday as they prepared to reopen schools next week and provide alcohol-based hand sanitizers to classrooms across Rhode Island.

More than 20,000 children in three communities were off from school on Thursday and Friday as health officials continued to investigate whether a probable meningitis case is related to an illness that caused three cases of encephalitis, one of which was fatal.

Health investigators are trying to determine whether the latest meningitis case, discovered Wednesday in a child from Coventry, is connected to mycoplasma, or “walking pneumonia,” and whether a more dangerous strain of the mycoplasma bacteria has developed.

Mycoplasma very rarely leads to serious illness or death, according to scientists who study the bacteria.

“Part of the investigation is to begin to understand, ‘Did we have higher rates of mycoplasma infection and complications from that, or was this something different out there?”‘ Dr. David Gifford, the director of the state health department, said Friday afternoon.

In addition, Gov. Don Carcieri signed an executive order Friday asking all schools to have alcohol-based handwashing stations, post proper handwashing procedures and provide information about limiting the spread of pneumonia or other similar illnesses.

The state is also distributing hand-sanitizing gels and dispensers to all schools in the state. Gifford said he expected enough dispensers to install one per classroom, though no additional sanitization in schools is recommended or necessary.

He said he was “very optimistic” that schools would reopen next week, and hoped to have more information about that on Sunday.

Mycoplasma was blamed for three cases of encephalitis in Warwick and West Warwick in the last few weeks. Dylan Gleavey, a second-grade student at Warwick’s Greenwood Elementary School, died from the neurological illness last month.

Meningitis is an inflammation of membranes protecting the brain, and encephalitis is an inflammation of the brain. Mycoplasma can occasionally cause such neurological complications.

All public schools were closed down Thursday in Warwick, West Warwick and Coventry, and afterschool activities were canceled. The Roman Catholic Diocese of Providence also closed eight schools in those communities as a precaution, although there were no known cases at those schools.

Health investigators, including epidemiologists from the CDC, were in Rhode Island to look for more possible cases.

“I think the focus will continue to be making sure that there are no new cases,” said Cynthia Whitney, chief of the respiratory diseases branch at the CDC.

Efforts to determine whether a more virulent strain of mycoplasma has developed are complicated by the fact that it’s a small bacteria that is very hard to grow outside the body, Whitney said.

The more bacteria available to work with, the easier it is to determine if there’s anything unique about it, she said.

State health officials said test results were expected back this weekend for the child from Coventry, whose identity was not released to protect the family’s privacy.

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