Senior Ava Hecht died from Neisseria meningitidis, otherwise known as meningococcal disease.
According to the New York Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), meningococcal disease is a severe bacterial infection of the bloodstream or meninges, a thin lining covering the brain and spinal cord, caused by the meningococcus germ.
It is possible for anyone to contract the disease but it is more common in infants and children. There are approximately 30 to 50 cases reported in New York City every year.
The meningococcus germ is spread by direct close contact with the nose or throat discharges of an infected person. Only individuals who are in close contact with an infected person such as prolonged face to face contact or sharing food or drinks are at risk of the disease. Those with casual contact such as having a conversation, sitting in a classroom, meeting or passing by in a hallway are not at risk.
The symptoms of meningococcal disease are high fever, chills, headache, nausea, vomiting, stiff neck and a rash. If you are able to touch your chin to your chest, you do not have a stiff neck. The symptoms may appear two to 10 days after exposure, but usually within five days.
Antibiotics, such as penicillin G or ceftriaxone, can be used to treat people afflicted with meningococcal disease. Individuals who were in close contact with an infected person are advised to obtain a prescription from their physician for a special antibiotic, such as rifampin, ciprofloxacin or ceftriaxone.
Hecht’s parents notified Assistant Principal Pupil Services Eleanor Archie of the cause of death on Saturday, January 10.
The HHS contacted Principal Stanley Teitel, who proceeded to post the information on the Stuyvesant Web site and the Parents’ Association (PA) Web Site. Teitel sent an e-mail to every student containing the information that was posted on the Stuyvesant Web site. He also left a voice message in each student’s home, notifying parents to check the Web site for further information and of the necessary precautions that they should take.
Parents’ Association Co-President Paola de Kock also sent an e-mail to the parent listserv informing them that “it was very important to parents that they consult their doctors and take any symptoms seriously,” she said.
“I’ve gotten some emails [from concerned parents], but I referred them to the letter on the Web site,” Teitel said.
Students also obtained information through sites such as Facebook. Senior Erica Sands, who was contacted by the hospital workers who were performing the autopsy, wrote a Facebook note containing information of the disease, treatment and preventative measures on Saturday, January 10.
“I put it on Facebook because I thought everyone should know what happened,” Sands said. “I wanted to make sense of the whole situation.”
Representatives from the HHS visited Stuyvesant to investigate the degree of severity and to answer any questions that students and faculty members had regarding the disease the following Monday, January 11.
The HHS officials visited the sixth and eighth period chorus classes and fourth period German class, which were some of Hecht’s classes.
“They described what meningococcal disease is, the symptoms and preventative measures,” senior Shyra Kamal said.
“It was really informative,” senior Emily Cheng said. “A lot of people had their questions answered.”
The HHS officials also attended the faculty meeting held after school on Monday, January 12 to answer any questions that members of the faculty had.
“They tried to present it fairly and objectively without a sense of panic,” social worker and guidance counselor John Mui said.
History teacher Phillip Scandura said that the officials were “helpful in answering the questions that came from the faculty.”
The students and faculty “had their concerns but after listening to the [HHS representatives], their concerns were alleviated,” Archie said.
According to Teitel, he is aware that certain parents have decided to give medicine to their children as a preventative measure, but he believes that “the majority of students should not be overly concerned,” he said.
A sophomore reported to the nurse’s office on Tuesday, January 13 “indicating that he didn’t feel well, so we called the Emergency Medical Service and he went to the hospital,” Teitel said.
“The media picked it up. They connected dots that weren’t there. They somehow suggested in their reporting that there might be a connection between this young man going to the hospital and the tragedy of last week,” he said.
Eyewitness News on channel seven had a televised segment titled “Possible Second Case of Meningitis at Stuyvesant High School.”
“Parents were very concerned and worried when they heard there was a possible second case of meningitis,” Parent Coordinator Harvey Blumm said. “In my six years as parent coordinator, I have never gotten as many calls from parents in such a short time as I did about this.”
Parents who contacted the school after watching the segment were told to read the PA Web site for pending information.
According to Teitel, approximately 400 students were absent on Wednesday, January 14, the day after the media coverage about the possible second case.
It was discovered that the student did not contract meningococcal disease. Teitel made a Public Announcement and posted the notification on the Stuyvesant Web site.
“We need to keep a sense of proportion because there is not much to be gained through fear,” de Kock said.
“I know this has been a very stressful time for us all, but rest assured that we will continue to be vigilant here at the school,” Teitel said in the announcement posted on the Stuyvesant Web site.