More than 90 Alaskans contract viral meningitis

Posted: Tuesday, October 16, 2001

ANCHORAGE (AP) -- State health officials said 91 Alaskans have contracted viral meningitis since summer, and many of the cases are linked to a camp held in Prince William Sound.

The contagious virus has sickened people in Anchorage, Chenega Bay, Cordova, Fort Wainwright, Homer, Nanwalek, Port Graham, Tatitlek, Valdez and Wasilla.

Dr. Joe McLaughlin, a state medical epidemiologist, said Monday that no one has died but some people have been hospitalized.

McLaughlin said 33 of the sick people had attended a regional summer camp in Prince William Sound. Many other ill people had contact with the campers but not all of them, he said.

The Section of Epidemiology did not identify the camp. But officials with Chugach Alaska Corp. said the illness showed up in people who attended its annual Nuciiq camp in July. The camp, on Nuchek island west of Cordova, is intended for elders and youths to share cultural traditions, said Sheri Buretta, chairman of the corporation board.

McLaughlin said the camp involved was not at fault for the spread of illness.

''It wasn't the case of the facility not being clean or properly run,'' Buretta said.

McLaughlin said the outbreak is not the largest in state history. There have been reports of more than 100 cases in past years. Recently, however, viral meningitis numbers have been low. The state reported only two cases in 2000, one in 1999 and five in 1998.

McLaughlin the infection likely spread after someone who was exposed to viral meningitis went to the camp and lived with other campers and staff members. Viral meningitis can be spread through nasal secretions, saliva or poor hygiene. Other people at the camp contracted the illness and developed symptoms. The outbreak didn't stop there, however.

''What happened is folks who were at the camp went back to their homes and spread the viruses,'' McLaughlin told the Anchorage Daily News.

Viral meningitis is rarely fatal, he said. Bacterial meningitis, a more severe disease, can be lethal, he said.

Both forms cause inflammation of the tissues around the brain and spinal cord. They also have similar symptoms, including fever, severe headaches, stiff necks, sensitivity to bright lights, drowsiness, confusion, nausea and vomiting, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

People with viral meningitis usually recover completely on their own after resting, drinking fluids and taking medicine to relieve symptoms. Bacterial meningitis, however, can result in brain damage, other disabilities -- or death if it's not treated as soon as possible with antibiotics, according to the CDC. Vaccines can prevent types of bacterial meningitis, but there is no immunization for the viral illness.

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