Children shunned over meningitis: Ignorance of illness leads to boycott of families and footballers

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The Independent Online
CHILDREN at the centre of a meningitis outbreak are being treated like 'plague victims' by ignorant outsiders who fear their sons and daughters are at risk from playing with them.

Junior football teams in Burnham-on-Sea, Somerset, have been boycotted by other teams - in one case on the advice of a doctor - simply because they live near the latest victims. And a family was shunned by a whole community because its seven-week-old baby contracted viral meningitis, a relatively commonplace strain which is neither dangerous nor infectious.

Four people have died from the potentially lethal bacterial meningococcal meningitis since the outbreak of the disease in Somerset at the beginning of the year. The charity Meningitis Research says 29 cases have been reported in the county, 25 of which were the bacterial meningococcal type, an extremely high proportion. What has frightened people in the Sedgemoor area, especially the towns of Burnham-on-Sea and Highbridge, is that 15 of the 29 cases have been on their doorstep - 14 of them meningococcal.

As a result fear has developed in the area and suspicion has grown among the people of nearby towns. 'We have had football teams ringing up asking if it's safe to go into Burnham, and we have had people in Burnham asking whether it's safe to let children near their grandparents,' said Kate Croizat, spokeswoman for Meningitis Research. 'People are afraid to go into the area and they are treating people there like plague victims. But their fears are irrational.'

Meningococcal meningitis can be passed on only by direct exchanges of saliva, by kissing or, less likely, by sharing a cup or bottle. The bacteria cannot survive outside the body for more than a second or two.

This message has been sent out time and again by Somerset Health Authority since it was criticised in the summer for hushing up an early case of the disease at King Alfred's school in Burnham, where two teenage pupils subsequently died.

But when Louise Spencer's baby, Jodi, contracted viral meningitis, she found out how little of the message had been understood by her friends and neighbours. 'As soon as word got round that Jodi had meningitis, we felt we were cut off by everyone, regardless of how much we said it was harmless viral meningitis that couldn't be passed on,' she said.

Within days, her school-age children, Theresa, seven, and Gareth, five, were shunned by their friends at Woolavington primary school near Burnham, and her other son, Woody, three, was barred from his local playgroup because of the concerns of other parents.

Theresa said she felt 'sad' when her friends cut her off, probably on the advice of their parents.

'They wouldn't play with me because they said they didn't want to catch meningitis,' she said. 'I had to sit on a bench on my own. I felt very upset because another girl said she wouldn't even sit next to me.'

Ms Spencer said people she had known for years refused to speak to her when she collected her children at the school. 'I understand that people were frightened, but they never took the trouble to find out just what Jodi had,' she said. Pressure on the family died down after the school issued a letter to all parents explaining the situation.

David Bassi and Sandra Archibald experienced a similar problem when fixtures against their teams, Berrow Boys Junior FC and Burnham Utd Junior FC, were cancelled because of the meningitis scare.

'One of the teams, Clevedon Athletic (based a few miles away) checked with a local GP and he advised them to stay away,' said Mrs Archibald.

Clevedon Athletic were subsequently fined for not playing the fixture but successfully appealed when they pointed out that they were advised against it by Dr John Reid, who was acting as a locum at the Clevedon Health Centre.

Dr Reid said: 'There would have been a very low risk of infection - one in a million - but it would have been disastrous if one of the boys had developed meningitis after playing the game.

'The fears people have reflect those of Aids and HIV; they don't quite understand how it works or the route it takes to infection. It has a dark side to it that unsettles people. I knew the risks of infection were extremely low, but I was taking into account the high anxiety in the area at the time.

'I believe they had made up their minds and I told them what I think they wanted to hear.'


SYMPTOMS: Fever, vomiting, dislike of bright lights, listlessness, stiffness of neck and back, drowsiness and a distinctive rash. The rash does not disperse when pressed (press a glass against one of the blotches) and resembles a series of small reddish-brown bruises.

ACTION: Call your doctor IMMEDIATELY. Death can occur within hours. If large doses of penicillin are administered within hours, up to 85 per cent of victims survive.

The disease is passed on by close contact involving saliva, usually by kissing or, more unusually, sharing cups or bottles. There is a difference between viral and bacterial meningitis: viral meningitis can cause illness but is not fatal and cannot be transmitted to another person.

(Photograph omitted)