'It's awful. It's like the Black Death has struck'

Meningitis outbreak: Confusion and distress in Lincoln as health authority hands out antibiotics to pupils
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The football fields were empty and the netball courts were shut up at the City School in Lincoln yesterday, as pupils arrived to pick up emergency antibiotics to protect them against the outbreak of meningitis that has killed five people in the county in less than two months.

Two of the victims were pupils from the school and a third, Caroline East, 14, was still critically ill last night in Lincoln County Hospital, after being admitted with meningitis on Monday.

An atmosphere of confusion and distress hung over the school, which will remain closed until at least Friday. Local health authority officials were overseeing the handing out of the antibiotics in the main hall, after reversing late on Tuesday night an earlier decision only to administer the drugs to 15- and 16-year-olds and offering them instead to all pupils.

Many of the parents were worried not only about their children at the school, but also that their younger children may be at risk from siblings. Among them was Susan York, whose daughter Leanne, 13, is at the City School.

"We were phoned up at 10 o'clock this morning and asked to come up to the school for antibiotics, and there's a lot of confusion over what's happening," Mrs York said.

"Leanne is certainly not coming back until we're sure everything is completely okay. She's got an eight-year-old brother, and a lot of us are concerned it could spread to other schools.

"It's a real shock ... You never think it's going to be on your doorstep. A lot of us feel let down that more wasn't done sooner."

The first meningitis victim at the school was Kelly Roberts, 15, who died at the end of October. The second, Sam Binns, 15, died last weekend.

As pupils cycled aimlessly around the entrance to the school yesterday, they expressed their shock at the deaths of their classmates. "It's awful, it's like the Black Death has struck," Amber Smith, 12, said.

"Everyone has been in tears over it, and I couldn't believe it when we were told about Caroline at registration yesterday. She's so tall and strong-looking, and she's always really cheerful."

All City School trips have been cancelled, including an ice skating outing to Doncaster this weekend, and football and netball matches with other schools have been postponed.

The local health authority was offering reassurance yesterday over its decision to extend the prescribing of antibiotics.

Dr Michael Le Geyt, a consultant in incommunicable disease control for Lincolnshire Health Authority, who is heading the investigation into the outbreak, said: "We decided not to give them earlier, because based on past experience we did not feel there was a need to. Giving mass medication to people who do not need it could be irresponsible."

The seventh victim of the meningitis outbreak, a 40-year-old Lincoln man, was also still critically ill in the Queen's Medical Centre in Lincoln last night. In September cases of the disease in the county were reported to have risen by 38 per cent in a year.

The results of swab tests taken from 15- and 16-year-olds at the City School will come through on Friday. They will identify whether the outbreak strain of meningitis is present in the group.

Barbara Peck, headteacher of the City School, was trying to offer comfort to parents yesterday. "We've closed the school because we thought parents would be more comfortable if their children weren't there," she said. "I'm told it's just a statistical coincidence, but to have this many cases makes it hard to believe."