Meningitis outbreak fears remain potent here

Published 12:00 am Saturday, March 31, 2001


LAPLACE – As residents tune into the nightly news to learn that meningitis attacks in Louisiana are climbing and now at over a dozen cases in the New Orleans area alone, the question of outbreak has come up in conversation among St. John the Baptist Parish citizens. They want to know if the state is looking at an epidemic and if they should be concerned about their children contracting the disease. Health officials say no, there is no indication of any kind of outbreak. According to state epidemiologist Raoult Ratard, the fear comes from a misunderstanding of the disease. Though he said this year has seen a high percentage of cases, none of those cases can be connected to another. There have been 32 documented cases of meningococcal disease reported in Louisiana since January, and 13 of those cases were in the New Orleans area, said Ratard Wednesday afternoon. Since Ratard’s report a 6-month-old infant has died of the disease. Two of the documented cases took the lives of St. John Parish residents, 17 and 12 years old. Of the total cases documented in the state, seven have resulted in deaths. Ratard said this year has been among the highest in cases reported. He said the beginning months of the year will bring the most cases, and there will usually be between 10 to 30 cases in a year. Ratard added that there is no clear explanation as to why the percentage is so high this year. According to Ratard, 1998 and 1999 were high years, but 2000 saw a decrease in cases. He said the cold months usually bring the most cases for the year because people are inside more and more bacteria is transmitted. Between the months of January and March half the cases for the year will occur, said Ratard. About the question of epidemic, Ratard said the cases in the state are not connected. “We put all cases into the computer as they come up, then we talk to all people involved in each case. We have an Excel file that lists all information, and we go back line by line to see if they can be connected,” he said. “If it looks like they can, we call and ask more questions. When it’s a high year, you have to do that.” Ratard said that of the 13 cases in the New Orleans area, five were strain C, two were strain Y and 2 were strain B. Four of the cases could not be typed, meaning the lab could not determine which strains they were. Of the St. John cases, one was strain B and the other strain C. He said the strains are determined by the genetic code of the bacteria, and one strain cannot turn into another. They are completely different and cannot be connected in any way. “So far there is no outbreak, no connections in any of the cases,” Ratard said, adding the disease is very severe, though usually no more than 10 percent infected become fatal. This year, however, 18 percent of the cases were fatal. The bacteria that causes the disease is carried by one out of 10 people, said Ratard. Around 450,000 people in Louisiana carry the bacteria harmlessly in their throats or noses. “Why do you have 450,000 people carrying the bacteria and only 50 people get the disease? We don’t know. Of those 50, why does the disease kill a few within hours? That we do not know,” said Ratard. He added there is still a lot about meningococcal disease that is not known. Symptoms of meningitis include high fever, headache and stiff neck. Nausea, vomiting, sensitivity to light, confusion and sleepiness can also occur. Bacterial meningitis can be treated with antibiotics, but it is important the patient be seen immediately. The disease can be spread through kissing, drinking after an infected person or other contact with that person’s saliva. It cannot be transmitted through casual contact. There are vaccines against many strains of the bacteria. For more information on vaccines available, contact your local health unit or your primary physician. For more information on meningococcal disease visit the website for the Center for Disease Control at