Meningitis, Encephalitis Forces School Closures for More Than 20,000 in Rhode Island

Rhode Island officials canceled school Thursday for more than 20,000 students while health experts search for any connection between a suspected case of meningitis and a second-grader's encephalitis death two weeks ago.

"Given the parents' concerns and our concerns, we felt that out of abundance of caution we would keep schools closed for the next two days," Dr. David Gifford, director of the state's Public Health Department, said early Thursday.

"Calling it an outbreak at the time is premature," he said.

The meningitis case was reported late Wednesday in a student at Hopkins Hill School in Coventry. Meningitis is an inflammation of membranes protecting the brain and spinal cord that requires hospitalization in severe cases.

Encephalitis also involves brain inflammation caused by a virus. It was blamed for the death of one Warwick student last month and two other children's illnesses.

There has been an unusually high incidence of pneumonia in those communities, Gifford said. Several Warwick students in recent months developed infections of mycoplasma pneumonia, or "walking pneumonia," which is common and can, in rare cases like that of the Warwick second-grader, progress to encephalitis or meningitis.

Health investigators will spend the next few days talking to school nurses and looking for possible additional cases in hospitals.

More epidemiologists from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention are also headed to the state to assist the half-dozen scientists already in Rhode Island, officials said Thursday.

Health and school officials will then meet over the weekend to determine when the public schools will reopen.

Classes were called off Thursday and Friday for 11,500 public school students in Warwick, 6,000 in Coventry, and 4,000 in West Warwick. Schools in other parts of the state will remain open, Gifford said.