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Tuesday, 9 March, 1999, 18:01 GMT
Meningitis: The 1999 panic
16.41 09.03.99 wath ac
William Hague's old school saw the first outbreak of the year
The government's vaccination programme was prompted by a series of serious meningitis outbreaks.

Throughout January 1999, a severe outbreak of meningitis in south Wales took a prominent position in the headlines.

As a public health emergency was declared, mass vaccinations were performed at schools in Pontypridd.

Doctors did their best to calm public fears about the likelihood of infection, but parents were alarmed and marched to demand blanket vaccinations - regardless of whether their children attended the affected schools.

Yet every winter there is a rise in the number of cases of meningococcal meningitis and meningococcal septicaemia. What made 1999 different?

An unusually high incidence

The Meningitis Research Foundation (MRF) says the UK is now suffering the highest number of meningitis cases in 50 years.

A spokeswoman said that, in the past, cases tended to be more isolated, but there have been a growing number of cluster outbreaks in recent years.

Public Health Laboratory Service notification figures for cases of the disease over the first few weeks of 1999 bore this out.

  • Cases of meningococcal septicaemia: 464 in 1999; 277 in 1998; 308 in 1997
  • Cases of meningococcal meningitis: 274 in 1999; 229 in 1998; 318 in 1997

Meningitis is a seasonal disease, and incidence peaks during the winter months.

Figures stretching back through December and November confirm the pattern - 1999's winter was severe.

PHLS figures show there were 104 cases of meningococcal septicaemia in the first week of the year but only 33 in the seventh.

Incidence of meningococcal meningitis fell from 68 to 28 cases in the same period.

Government action

However, the south Wales outbreak resulted in three deaths and followed on the heels of an outbreak in Cheshire over the Christmas holiday.

16.41 09.03.99 jones ac
Jon Owen Jones announced the foundation of a study group in February
These raised the profile of the disease significantly and the government was forced to take action.

It set up a special group to see if any lessons could be learnt from the south Wales outbreak in south Wales.

Jon Owen Jones, junior health minister for Wales, announced the formation of the group in February 1999.

He told the House of Commons it would look at the issues surrounding meningococcal infection in Wales.

It was headed by Professor Ian Cameron, Vice Chancellor of the University of Wales College of Medicine, and will include representatives from leading meningitis charities.

The move followed criticism of Bro Taf health authority's reaction to the outbreak.

Officials declared a public health emergency and vaccinated children at three schools.

But parents of pupils at other schools said their children had mixed with pupils at the affected schools and could be at risk.

Focus on procedures.

16.41 09.03.99 donaldson ac
Professor Liam Donaldson praised the authority's actions
Following criticism of the handling of the south Wales case, Professor Liam Donaldson, the government's Chief Medical Officer, defended health officials' actions.

He said they had acted rapidly and in keeping with existing meningitis guidelines.

But a spokeswoman for the MRF said the government's study group could look at tightening guidelines on managing meningitis.

The guidelines were last updated in January 1997.

The MRF said lessons could be learnt from studying how cases affect a small population group such as Wales.

See also:

09 Mar 99 | Medical notes
Preventing meningitis
11 Feb 99 | Health
Meningitis study group set up
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