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After string of meningitis cases, health officials urge vaccinations

Seven cases of bacterial meningitis – including one that hospitalized an Eastern Washington University football player and another that sickened a child in a local day care – are worrying Spokane County health officials.

The number of cases during the first three months of this year is higher than usual. Normally three to five cases are reported a year, said Julie Graham, spokeswoman for the Spokane Regional Health District. The district is encouraging residents to review their vaccination status to protect against the disease.

The meningitis case at EWU prompted the football coaching staff to get players immunized and clean equipment, said school spokesman Dave Meany.

“It got people’s attention, that’s for sure,” he said.

The football player returned to classes Wednesday upon discharge from a local hospital.

Meningococcal meningitis can spread quickly by coughing, kissing or even sharing a cigarette, lip balm or a fork.

Its effects are serious. The disease’s flu-like symptoms include high fever, stiff neck, nausea, vomiting, headaches and exhaustion. A meningitis patient might suffer organ failure, brain damage, amputations of limbs and death, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Doctors and other medical caregivers are required to report any cases of the disease to public health officials, who then move quickly to reconstruct the patient’s immediate past to inform others they could be infected. Of the 98 meningitis cases reported in Washington state in 2004 and 2005, five people died.

The CDC said 20 percent of survivors suffer long-term disabilities.

Initial investigations of the recent seven Spokane County cases found no overlapping contacts, leading health officials to suspect the cases are unrelated. Officials have sent samples to a laboratory to determine if the strains match.

Graham said those most at risk of becoming infected include people living in close quarters, such as college freshmen, military personnel and children in day care.

Up to 80 percent of bacterial meningitis cases can be prevented by immunization.

Two of the seven local cases were not preventable, Graham said. Officials are awaiting test results to determine the strains of the remaining five cases.

“This is a dangerous disease, and we encourage people to consult their doctors if they are concerned,” Graham said.


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