Outbreak of meningitis is the worst for half a century

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The Independent Online
A NEW strain of meningitis which has struck fear into a small Welsh community over the last nine days could be behind the rapid rise in the disease across the country which is now running at its highest level for 50 years, experts said yesterday.

As medical teams in Pontypridd, Mid Glamorgan, completed the mass inoculation of children in the town where there have been 11 confirmed cases of meningitis and three deaths, the Public Health Laboratory Service said the strain isolated from some of the cases was first identified in 1995 and already accounted for 70 per cent of cases involving group C disease.

Helplines nationwide have been inundated with calls, with health officials busy allaying fears. In the first three weeks of this year there were 440 notifications of the disease, compared with 255 in 1998 and 304 in 1997.

Young people in Scotland, Northern Ireland and Kent were also being treated for the disease, which has claimed at least 35 deaths this year

The new sub-strain, called C2a, caused major outbreaks in Quebec, Canada, in the early Nineties and in Spain and the Czech Republic before arriving in Britain. Since 1995, the incidence of meningitis has doubled nationally, which could be linked with the arrival of the unfamiliar strain to which the population has low immunity.

At Coedylan Comprehensive School yesterday, there was an atmosphere of fear mingled with relief as all 1,200 pupils and staff received their vaccination against the C strain of meningitis which has already claimed the life of 15-year-old pupil Gareth Gould. Another pupil, 16-year-old Stuart Mottram, was in a critical condition in hospital last night.

Pupils and staff at the nearby Cardinal Newman Roman Catholic school were yesterday saying prayers for cookery teacher Lynn James, 55, who died on Monday night from the same C2a strain.

And a 66-year-old woman, also from Pontypridd, died from meningitis on the same day as Gareth. Two other Coedylan teenagers and two 11-year- olds from the lower school are also being treated for the disease. And two children from Trerobert Primary School, also in Pontypridd, are recovering in hospital from the same virulent strain.

Buses had been laid on to transport children from their homes to Coedylan Comprehensive, which was turned into an immunisation centre, but few took up the offer. Anxious to avoid close contact, parents drove them instead.

However, compared with a couple of days ago, the mood of staff, parents and children was calmer. They were relieved that something was being done.

Bronwen Keelan, 49, whose 14-year-old daughter, Aimee, attends the school, said: "We've had the antibiotics. My child was vaccinated this morning. There's nothing more we can do. We've got to just hope they've got it right."

Over the past few days Aimee had learned the hardest lesson of all, she added. "At 14, to suddenly realise that children can die, that they are not invulnerable, is terribly frightening," she said.

The saving grace in this tragic outbreak in Pontypridd was that the community is so close-knit. Staff at the school only had to ring about 10 households in order to get the word out that antibiotics were to be administered on Sunday and vaccinations on Tuesday.

Eiry Rochford, 53, head of Welsh, which is taught as a second language, said: "We're in the South Wales valley here. It's a different community to anywhere else in the world. [Word] just spreads."

By 3pm yesterday the vaccination programme was complete. Nurses packed up the six tables erected in the main hall, which had been transformed into an emergency centre.

Further down the corridor Peter James, chair of the school's governors, announced that the school would be closing until after the half-term break. "This is still a very anxious school and a very anxious county, as I'm sure you will appreciate," he said.

He read a statement drafted by the governing body the previous night. "We understand and accept the view of the health authority that the school itself is not the centre of this outbreak. Nevertheless, in view of the current very low attendance at the school, we have decided to close the school as soon as the immunisation programme is complete. We expect the school to reopen after the half-term break."

Meningitis follows a pattern of peaks and troughs every 10 to 15 years which may be linked to the arrival of new strains. Over the years the population builds up immunity to older strains but a new one can infect more people and cause more virulent disease.

A spokesman for the Public Health Laboratory Service said: "There is nothing to suggest the C2a strain is any nastier than any of the other strains, but because we have been exposed to it more recently it may cause more virulent disease."

Dr Meyrion Evans, a public health consultant for Bro Taf Health Authority, which is handling the south Wales outbreak, said no new cases had been identified in school pupils since Saturday. However, he added that the incubation period for the disease meant it would not be safe to give the all clear until after the next weekend.

Jon Owen Jones, Health minister at the Welsh Office, yesterday appealed for parents to be vigilant for signs of meningitis following the outbreak. He told the Commons in response to an emergency question that it was a "dreadful illness", but treatable if prompt action was taken.

Mr Jones said that extra vaccines and antibiotics had been brought into the area from Bristol and the West Midlands to ensure adequate supplies.

Back in the entrance of Coedylan school, a nurse waved off the last batch of children. "Come on then, let's get you off, my lovelies," she said, adding hopefully, "have a nice half-term." The pupils looked awkward and subdued as they filed out, their heads bowed. They did not reply. How could they?

Freephone 24-hour helpline run by the Meningitis Research Foundation: 0808 800 3344