At least eight students from eastern China's Anhui Province have died from meningitis in the past few weeks, said health officials at the weekend. Three of them died after being taken to hospital in Nanjing, capital of Jiangsu Province.
Du Changzhi, deputy director of Anhui Provincial Health Bureau, said that seven are still under observation and 49 have recovered from the disease.
Du told media that between December 20 and January 28, cases of meningitis were found in schools in 11 cities, including Wuhu, Chuzhou, Anqing, Chaohu and Hefei.
Anhui's health authorities received reports of 61 cases in all, 77 percent of whom were students.
Meningitis is an inflammation of membranes surrounding the brain and spinal cord, and has a number of different causes, including both bacteria and viruses. Symptoms include fever, vomiting and intense headache, and some forms of bacterial meningitis are contagious through close contact via respiratory secretions.
The current outbreak is type C meningitis, caused by the bacteria Neisseria meningitides. Most of those affected have been school students aged from 13 to 18, according to Du.
Lei Zhenglong, director of the Ministry of Health's Emergency Response Division, said that over 2,000 people were infected with meningitis nationally last year, which generally peaks in winter and spring.
"Compared with some other infectious diseases like tuberculosis, the number of meningitis cases is relatively low in China," Lei said, "But it did kill more than 160 people in 2004."
Prevention measures for the disease are similar to those for flu or SARS, including vaccinations, fresh air and using a mask if necessary, Lei noted. Bacterial meningitis is not transmitted as easily as flu or the common cold, however.
Du said health authorities have strengthened surveillance, public education and immunization work to counter the infection's spread.
In cities where it has appeared, many people have rushed to be vaccinated. Thousands of vaccine doses have been allocated by the provincial Centre for Disease Control and Prevention, said a doctor at the centre named Fang.
Meningitis vaccination does not generally have a high take up because people have to pay for it themselves, said Lei. Only one Chinese factory produces the vaccine – about 30 million doses annually, most of which remain unsold.
One dose of the vaccine is sold at about 18 yuan (US$2) in Anhui and can be effective for three years, Fang said.
Type C meningitis was first reported in Anhui in September 2003, in Qingyang County. Previous outbreaks had usually been type A, said Du, which is easier to contain than type C.
Provincial health and education authorities have issued guidelines on how to fight the disease, especially in schools, and are publishing the latest developments every day.
They also said that people suffering from fever, headache, sore throat or coughs should go to hospital for treatment.
(China Daily January 31, 2005)