School on alert after meningitis claims girl's life

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The Independent Online
The parents of a five-year-old girl, whose best friend died from meningitis on Boxing Day, were at her beside at Guy's Hospital, London, yesterday where her condition was described by doctors as critical but stable.

Most of the two little girls' contacts have been traced by health and school authorities after the meningitis outbreak in Sussex. The first child died in the Royal Alexandra Hospital, Brighton, on Boxing Day having become ill on Christmas Day.

The tragedy has shaken the small community at Rotting-dean, East Sussex, where the children lived and went to school together. It is not known when the two contracted the disease. As close friends, they would have spent time together outside school. The incubation period fir meningitis is two to ten days; three or four days is the common incubation time.

The two friends were in the reception class at Rottingdean Primary School. There was praise today for the school's head, Robert Smith, who spent Boxing Day helping officials by providing phone numbers and addresses.

"He was superb and made the job of doing the tracing that much easier, for he knew everybody, the groupings at the school and their friends," said Andrew Partington, a spokes man for the East Sussex Health Authority.

There are 220 pupils at the school, but it was being stressed that most were not at risk as the disease can only be caught by direct contact. "It is family members and children in the same class who were physically close to these two. Other children in the school are not necessarily at risk," said Mr Partington.

A team of doctors have been tracing the close contacts to give them a course of antibiotics. "We have traced, we think, pretty much all the people we need to trace," said Mr Partington.

These children have been given a course of the antibiotic Rifampicin, the standard treatment to fight off a wide range of strains of meningitis.

All the parents with children at the school have been contacted, but the number being offered the course of antibiotics is much smaller.

Tests are being made to try and isolate the particular strain of meningitis.

The two children are not being named by the health authority to protect the privacy of their families.

In a separate outbreak of the disease in Northern Ireland, more than 20 nursery school children have been inoculated against meningitis after it was confirmed that one of their playmates had contracted the disease.

what to watch for: the warning signs Meningitis is inflammation of the membrane, the meninges that cover and protect the brain and the spinal cord.

Viral meningitis tends to occur in the winter. There are about 500 cases a year. This is usually less serious than bacterial meningitis. About half of all cases are children.

The early symptoms of meningitis can be similar to flu with a headache and a stiff neck. The child may be drowsy and confused. But symptoms can develop rapidly in a few hours. A rash or blotchy skin may develop, indicating the onset of septicaemia, a serious complication of the disease.

Antibiotics are used both to prevent and treat meningitis. Doctors said yesterday that parents who were anxious about a child's symptoms should seek medical advice quickly.

The National Meningitis Trust is campaigning for GPs to carry emergency supplies of antibiotics so that patients can be treated very quickly before they get to hospital.