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Viral Meningitis A Concern As Georgia Schools Reopen

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An outbreak of viral meningitis in Georgia has health officials concerned that the disease --- which frequently hits children --- could spread further as students return to school.

So far this year, the state has seen more than 310 cases of the disease, which is less serious than bacterial meningitis. Georgia typically has 175 cases a year, with transmission usually peaking in August and September.

"We suspect cases may go up once all the kids are back in school," said Katherine Bryant, an epidemiologist with the Georgia Division of Public Health. Children in the metro area began returning to school this week, with other major metro school systems beginning by Aug. 11.

Viral meningitis is rarely fatal but is spread easily when people don't wash their hands or when they share food or utensils. Symptoms include headache, fever, vomiting, a stiff neck and light sensitivity.

Those symptoms also can indicate bacterial meningitis, which kills 10 percent to 15 percent of people it infects, so anyone displaying the signs should see a doctor, Bryant said.

Other states, including Arizona, South Carolina and Washington, also have reported more viral meningitis cases this year. Health officials haven't determined a cause for the increase..

Georgia's outbreak started in March in the Augusta area, but it has since slowed down there and moved to the metro Atlanta, Savannah and Columbus areas.

Twenty percent of the illnesses are in children less than a year old, and 41 percent are in children ages 1 to 14.

"They come in very cranky and irritable," said Dr. Ellis Dixon, a pediatric emergency medicine physician at Children's Healthcare of Atlanta at Egleston, where viral meningitis started showing up in May.

Treatment for viral meningitis is limited to fluids and pain relievers. Antibiotics are effective only against bacterial meningitis.

Prevention tips include washing hands frequently and not letting children share dishes or toys that have been put in their mouths. "Cleanliness is the best way to prevent transmission of the virus," Bryant said.

Georgia had a record 428 cases of viral meningitis in 1998, two years after recording its low of 47 cases.

Copyright 2003 The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

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