A 14-year-old girl was fighting for her life in a Lincoln hospital last night, the seventh victim in two months of what doctors warn may be an extra-virulent strain of meningitis bacterium circulating in the city.
Two of Caroline East's schoolmates are among five people to have died in the largest British outbreak of meningitis for almost two years. A man, 40, is also critically ill in hospital with the disease.
Lincolnshire Education Authority yesterday closed the City School where the three girls were pupils, and sent home 743 children and staff while tests continued to locate the source of infection. Public-health officials had previously taken throat swabs and distributed antibiotics.
Michael Le Geyt, a consultant in communicable diseases for Lincolnshire Health Authority, who is leading the investigation, said: "I am concerned because this is the largest number of deaths close together from what appears to be the same disease that I have seen for a very long time. It may be that we are dealing with a very aggressive form of the bug."
Geoff Deacon, of the education authority, said: "The reason for closing the school is to allow medical staff to carry out their tests ... On Thursday evening we will get reports back from the health authority on the situation. We are still hoping to open the school on Friday."
Kelly Roberts, 15, was the first pupil to die from the meningococcal form of meningitis on 30 October. Sam Binns, also 15 and a pupil at the City School, died on Monday after becoming ill over the weekend with the same strain of the disease. Robert Newlin, 19, died a week ago. Ten-month- old Sam Cook and Alex Kypri, 19, a student, died in October.
Peter East, the step-father of Caroline, who is on a ventilator,was keeping vigil by her bed last night. "She's a very, very sick girl but hopefully she has responded to the drugs they gave her in the night," he said. "The next hours are crucial. If she can maintain this level things may improve ... One moment she was full of life and ... now she is fighting for her life. She started complaining of a sore throat on Sunday night. She was sick throughout the night. In the morning I checked a leaflet from the City School and realised she could have meningitis, so it's thanks to the school that we got her to hospital as soon as we did ... all we can do is wait and pray."
Ray Thompson, of the National Meningitis Trust, urged parents in Lincoln not to panic, but advised them to be alert to possible symptoms. "It is perfectly understandable that people, particularly parents at the school, are worried.
"I know it's a difficult situation but the fact does remain that meningitis is a very uncommon disease ... What parents can do is watch out for symptoms of the disease, including vomiting, stiff neck, a high temperature, headaches, convulsions, spots, and a dislike of bright lights."
However, he added: "Not all sufferers will get all of those symptoms. Unfortunately, there is no easy answer with meningitis. What we do know is sufferers become very ill very quickly and so speed is of the essence. Just get your child to hospital as fast as possible."
There were 1,823 cases of acute (bacterial) meningitis reported in 1994, according to the trust. About 10 per cent of these cases are usually fatal. In the general population, around 10 per cent carry the meningitis bacteria in their nose and throat with no ill effect.
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