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5 December 1996

The Cardiff Meningitis Panic

Dr Michael Fitzpatrick is not catching any of the latest health panics to strike Britain down

An outbreak of meningococcal meningitis at a student hall of residence in Cardiff, which has claimed two lives, has become the focus of national media attention over the weekend. Following the epidemic of food poisoning in Scotland, which has made hundreds ill and has killed five old people, panic about killer bugs once again stalks the nation.

Yet there is little particularly unusual or alarming about either of these episodes. A standard medical textbook offers the following account of the epidemiology of meningococcal meningitis:

'General outbreaks tend to be associated with conditions of overcrowding, stress and fatigue, as for example amongst troops in wartime camps, or among prisoners, or on board ship.'

Or, it might well have added, in student halls of residence (while some Living Marxism correspondents might question the level of stress and fatigue, student life is certainly overcrowded).

The major difference between the recent outbreak of meningitis and those of the past is the ready availability now of both prophylactic antibiotic treatment and immunisation. Thus an epidemic which might have affected large numbers is rapidly contained.

Outbreaks of food poisoning occur from time to time, with particularly severe effects on the very young and the very old. The cause of the current epidemic in Scotland has been identified as a virulent strain of the familiar bacterium E. Coli and its source has been rapidly traced to a particular butcher in Wishaw which provided gravy for a local lunch club. While the sick are being treated, appropriate control measures have been introduced.

In the not too distant past, such episodes scarcely merited a mention in the local newspapers, never mind the national media. The public preoccupation with infectious epidemics reflects a profoundly insecure society, for which the threat to health from deadly microbes is a metaphor for a deep sense of vulnerability. How appropriate in a week in which people wear a red ribbon to display their morbid awareness of AIDS, our society should find two more bugs to add to the long list of mortal dangers besetting its fragile citizens.

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