02/03/2005, 00.00
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Meningitis outbreak, authorities urge calm

First suspicious death of an infant girl in Shanghai raises alarm bells. Beijing begins vaccinations. World Health Organisation warns about 'atypical' meningitis in the Philippines.

Beijing (AsiaNews/Agencies) – Chinese health officials have urged the public not to panic over the outbreak of bacterial meningitis, but the death of an infant at a Shanghai hospital yesterday has raised concerns that the city might have recorded its first fatality from the disease.

The five-month-old child of migrant workers died at the Fudan University Children's Hospital in Shanghai's western district of Xuhui.

Hospital officials declined to comment on whether the child died from meningitis strain C, the same one that recently infected several people in Anhui province.

Officially, Shanghai has not reported any cases of meningitis, but this is not true for other places. In January in Guangdong provinces 11 people contracted the disease with two dying. In Jiangsu and Anhui provinces, the authorities reported 15 and 62 cases. A total of 258 meningitis cases have been found in China with 16 confirmed deaths.

A spokesman for China's Ministry of Health reiterated there was no cause for alarm. "Every level of the health department has been told to strengthen work on infectious disease monitoring and reporting. Every medical facility will promptly report the epidemic situation. [. . .] We are telling everyone, especially secondary school students, to pay attention to the weather and stay warm, be aware of sanitary conditions and prevent the flu," he said.

Fear of contagion is high because the holidays for the lunar New Year (February 9) are beginning. Millions of people are expected to travel in the country. Transport officials expect that a total of 1.97 billion trips will be made, up by 3.4 per cent over last year.

The lunar New Year usually falls in February of March, a time of the year that is cold and favourable to viruses. The virus causing meningitis is carried in the air and people can be infected by simply breathing it in.

To ward off the threat, health authorities in the capital Beijing have started to vaccinate local residents. A total of 300,000 vaccines are available for the most vulnerable people, an official from the Beijing Centre for Disease Prevention and Control said at a press conference Tuesday.

Priority will be given to migrant workers and their children since they are expected to go home over the lunar New Year holidays to areas where there have been outbreaks, said Sun Meiping, director of the Centre's Institute of Immunity and Prevention.

Meningitis is no stranger to China. Several times in the past—when vaccines and treatment were not available—it reached epidemic proportions. In the 1960s, one outbreak affected three million people killing 160,000.

For the World Health Organisation, the most alarming situation for meningitis is today in Baguio, north of Manila in the Philippines. Here the disease shows atypical features causing a blood infection that kills in just a few hours.

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