More than 1,300 pupils and staff at a school in Durham were yesterday vaccinated against meningitis and given antibiotics following the largest suspected outbreak of the disease to date.
The vaccinations came as a young girl and a baby became the latest to die from the disease. Leanne Lester, a 15-year-old from Banbury, the second pupil from Banbury School to become infected, died on Thursday morning. On the same day a seven-week-old baby died of meningococcal septicaemia at North Tyneside General hospital.
Nine pupils aged between 12 and 16 at Shotton Hall Comprehensive, in Peterlee, are being treated in local hospitals for meningitis. The school closed early for the Christmas break on Wednesday after scores of parents kept their children away.
Two of the cases have been confirmed as meningococcal meningitis. One was described as poorly but stable and the other as improving. Doctors are waiting for test results on seven other pupils which will be available by Monday.
Dr Vivien Hollyoak, consultant in communicable disease control for the County Durham Health Commission, said the vaccination against meningitis strain C, which began at 9.30am yesterday, was "a precaution only".
The vaccination, which is still regarded as experimental, is used only in emergency situations. Protection in adults lasts between three and five years and it is not very effective in younger children. About 90 per cent of people vaccinated develop antibodies against the strain C bacterium.
The National Meningitis Trust said that its helpline was being inundated with calls from worried parents, particularly from County Durham, Hertfordshire, Lincolnshire and Oxfordshire, where there have been highly publicised cases in the past few weeks.
Hospitals are under intense pressure because of a high number of flu cases, predominantly among the elderly, and suspected meningitis cases which are being referred by GPs as a precaution.
Leanne, who would have been 16 tomorrow, was put on a life-support machine at Horton General hospital, in Banbury, on Tuesday, but her condition continued to deteriorate. A 14-year-old fellow pupil is now recovering in hospital.
Despite the perception that meningitis cases are running at an unprecedented level, the Public Health Laboratory Service says that there is no evidence of a real rise this season, or of extra-virulent bacterial strains. "There have been a number of clusters in a short space of time. But what we are probably seeing is the usual winter peak which occurs in January happening earlier this year," a spokeswoman said.
She added that the public and the media have been "sensitised" to the disease by the outbreak in Lincolnshire in November which resulted in a total of seven cases with five deaths. As a result, more individual cases and clusters of cases are being reported with increased frequency. GPs are also on the alert so that cases of suspected meningitis are running at 17 to 20 per cent higher than last year.
However, in the week ending 2 December, the service had laboratory confirmation of 1,151 cases of meningococcal meningitis and meningococcal septicaemia. In the same period in 1994 the figure was 1,037; 1,164 in 1993; 1,194 in 1992; 1,305 in 1991 and 1,397 in 1990.