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New England Health Authorities Say Meningitis Cases Don't Point to Outbreak

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Dec. 30--Health authorities in Massachusetts and New Hampshire moved to reassure the public yesterday that despite a recent spate of bacterial meningitis cases in the region, no evidence points to a looming outbreak.

Test results revealed yesterday by New Hampshire health authorities showed that the strain of meningitis that killed an 18-year-old Bennington woman Saturday was unrelated to the strain of bacteria responsible for the illnesses of two 15-year-olds in the Keene area whose symptoms appeared two weekends ago.

So far, the cases in those two Monadnock Regional High School students are the only ones that have been linked through fluid tests. Two other New Hampshire youths who fell ill with meningitis late last week do not appear to have contracted the disease from each other or from any of the other victims.

"For whatever reason, we have five cases diagnosed within a two-week period, with one tragic death," said Mary Ann Cooney, public health director for New Hampshire. "With the exception of the two Monadnock students, the rest are all in very different parts of the state, with no contacts, no likenesses. It appears to be a very unfortunate kind of occurrence."

The four surviving New Hampshire teenagers remain hospitalized, but they are recovering.

A New Bedford man died of meningitis on Christmas Eve, but disease investigators in Massachusetts have found nothing to connect him with the New Hampshire cases, said Dr. Alfred DeMaria, the Massachusetts director of communicable disease control.

The cluster of meningitis cases in the region occurred at the end of a year in which health agencies recorded an unusually low number of illnesses blamed on the bacterial infection, whose initial symptoms include high fever, headache, and stiff neck. Rash, vomiting, and sensitivity to light appear as the illness progresses. Bacterial meningitis can result in brain damage, hearing loss, and death.

This month, Massachusetts recorded three cases of bacterial meningitis; there were 39 cases in 2003. In a typical year, the state averages 60 cases. The New Bedford man who succumbed last week to the illness was the state's third death for the year attributed to meningitis.

New Hampshire typically reports 15 to 30 bacterial meningitis cases a year, Cooney said. Until the five recent infections, the Granite State had recorded about nine this year. To prevent further cases, family members of the New Bedford man who died, Elmer F. Forsblom III, 52, as well as his co-workers at the Acushnet Company, were given antibiotics.

Bacterial meningitis is spread through respiratory and throat secretions, but it is not transmitted as easily as the common cold. Up to 15 percent of the population carries the bacteria at any given moment, DeMaria said. In most people, it causes no health problems. Why it erupts in severe illness in some patients remains unclear. "In most cases, fatalities happen because people are either very young or very old," DeMaria said. "But it can take people in the prime of life, like that 18-year-old in New Hampshire. It's terrible."

Jared Stearns contributed to this report.


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(c) 2003, The Boston Globe. Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune Business News.

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