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Meningitis Scare Hits Rhode Island

February 26, 1998

PROVIDENCE, R.I. (AP) _ Parents have been jamming doctors’ switchboards and swarming into waiting rooms because of a meningitis scare prompted by the deaths of three Rhode Island youngsters in the past two months.

State health officials insist there is no epidemic. But they recommended Monday that everyone from age 2 to 22 _ about 221,000 people _ be inoculated against the disease. The vaccine is ineffective against children under 2, and people older than 22 aren’t as susceptible to the deadliest strain of the disease.

The most recent death, a 5-year-old boy who died Monday, only added to the panic.

``Women are frantic and concerned about their children,″ Bob Teolis, director of the Atmed Treatment Center in Johnston, said Thursday. ``The third floor was swamped with upset mothers and children waiting in the hallways.″

About 300 parents and children crowded into the center Wednesday and 40 families were turned away when the clinic ran out of vaccine. After getting 160 more doses Thursday, the clinic ran out again by 3 p.m.

The deadliest strain of meningitis is on the rise across the United States, but Rhode Island is the first state to recommend mass vaccinations.

So far this year, 11 cases of the disease have been reported in the state. Last year at this time, two people had meningitis. But state officials say the inoculations are just a precaution to avoid a serious outbreak.

``It’s not spreading like wildfire,″ said Dr. Utpala Bandy, state director of disease control.

Outbreaks of viral meningitis are common and rarely cause deaths. But the Rhode Island scare is over bacterial meningitis, which occurs less frequently but progresses more rapidly and is more often fatal.

The year’s first meningitis fatality occurred on Jan. 12 with the death of a 2-year-old girl in East Providence. A 9-year-old from Woonsocket died one month later, and a 5-year-old boy from North Providence died Monday.

Barbara O’Rourke and her three children arrived at the treatment center in Johnston Thursday afternoon, about 5 minutes after the clinic ran out of the vaccine.

Like many, parents O’Rourke says she has looked all over for the vaccine.

``I feel like I’m getting the run-around,″ she said. ``It’s very difficult getting straight answers.″

Health officials say the vaccine is in short supply because it is rarely in high demand.

Gov. Lincoln Almond announced Thursday afternoon the state will organize vaccinations in schools and at other community institutions. Almond also said 100,000 doses of vaccine will arrive in Rhode Island next week.

``I want to assure all parents that their children will have access to the vaccine,″ Almond said.

Experts from the Atlanta-based Centers for Disease Control and Prevention flew to Providence Thursday to investigate cases that have occurred and to help fight the disease.

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