Hit With Meningitis, R.I. Tries To Immunize Its Youths

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Students across Rhode Island rolled up their sleeves last week as the state health department continued its massive inoculation campaign against a potentially deadly bacterial infection that has stricken a dozen youths so far this year.

Three of the Rhode Island youths who contracted meningigococcal meningitis this year have died. And 24 people in the state, which has a population of 997,000, fell ill with the disease last year--a 300 percent increase from 1994, when seven cases were reported.

State health officials are at a loss to explain what has triggered the sharp rise in cases of the rare, deadly bacterial infection. Because the occurrences have been unrelated, they cannot be deemed an outbreak.

"Everyone in the school was scared they'd catch something by being in the building," said Jon Peters, a senior at Woonsocket High School in Woonsocket, where a 4th grader died.

To help dispel such fears and quell the spread of the infection, the state late last month began inoculating every 2- to 22-year-old resident, the hardest-hit age group. The health department has enlisted schools and community health centers in its plan to inoculate 250,000 young people over the next six months. The shots will cost the state $7 million.

"Meningitis is a serious disease, and it does kill, even though most people can be treated and recover just fine," Robert J. Marshall, the assistant director of the state health department, said. "And people are responding to that."

Since Feb. 28, when the state launched the offensive, 41,000 young people have been given the shots.

No Sharing

"It's been a massive undertaking," said John Deasy, the superintendent of the Coventry public schools, which last week began immunizing all the district's 6,000 students and 3,000 young adults in after-school clinics.

The schools have also been the main venue for educating parents and students about transmission and treatment of the disease.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta describes meningitis as an infection of the spinal fluid surrounding the brain that is most often transmitted through saliva.

There are both viral and bacterial strains. Viral meningitis is generally less severe, while bacterial meningitis is more rare and can cause brain damage, hearing loss, and death. Common symptoms include high fever, headaches, nausea, and stiff necks. If diagnosed early, bacterial meningitis can be successfully treated with antibiotics.

Like his colleagues across the state, Superintendent Deasy advised his students and staff members not to share water bottles, soda cans, or cigarettes. The Coventry district has also intensified its cleaning activities. Custodians are now scrubbing the sinks and water fountains 12 times a day instead of four, Mr. Deasy said, "just to make sure."

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