Confusion over alleged reports of viral meningitis outbreak at some Cape schools


Western Cape Health Minister Dr Nomafrench Mbombo, and the Western Cape Minister of Education Debbie Schäfer conduct oversight at the School Wellness Mobile based at Yomelela Primary School in Khayelitsha. Picture: Ayanda Ndamane/African News Agency (ANA)

Cape Town – The provincial Health Department 
has been accused of under-reporting 
the extent of the meningitis 
outbreak from last year, as well some reports from the start of this year. 

There were reports of a meningitis outbreak at schools from the 
Grassy Park, Retreat, Steenberg area, 
with one case being confirmed from 
Muizenberg High. 
At the time, the Western Cape 
Health Department said these reports 
were false.

The National Institute for Communicable Diseases (NICD) said in a report dated March 24, 2019 that there had been an increase in enteroviral meningitis cases in the Western and Eastern Cape since November last year, although there had been no deaths.

“The NICD and the National Health Laboratory Service (NHLS) are conducting surveillance for enteroviral meningitis to better understand the reason for the increase in cases. Health-care workers are requested to identify cases and submit specimens to the NICD/NHLS for testing,” the report said. It said the cases were confirmed by Tygerberg and Groote Schuur hospitals.

The Institute said enteroviral meningitis was a mild form of meningitis caused by an enterovirus infection. Case numbers of enteroviral meningitis usually increase in warmer months.

Upon receiving the news from the NICD, the Western Cape Education Department (WCED) was contacted for comment. The WCED referred us to the provincial health department, and said they work collaboratively with them on health issues affecting schools.

WCED spokesperson Bronagh Hammond said: “If learners are absent from school for valid health reasons, parents or caregivers may request from the school information and documents that can assist the learner in continuing with the curriculum while absent. Alternatively, teachers should prepare for catch up assistance for the learner upon their return”.

Health department spokesperson Maret Lesch said there has been no unusual increase in enteroviral meningitis cases in pupils, and has also encouraged parents, caregivers and children to practice good hand hygiene by washing their hands regularly with soap and clean water.

ANC leader in the city council Xolani Sotashe said the provincial government did not want to take responsibility.

“They shouldn’t just say nothing was reported. They must prove the reports wrong.”

Sotashe said the reports needed to be investigated “before claiming nothing was reported”.

NICD’s Dr Kerrigan McCarthy said everyone was at risk of contracting meningitis. “However, the risk of getting the disease is higher in individuals who are immune-compromised, and children less than 5 years old.”

McCarthy said diagnosis was made by lab-testing specimens from sick individuals. “Specimens can include cerebrospinal fluid (CSF), nasopharyngeal swabs, rectal swabs and stool. Blood can also be tested. Enteroviral meningitis usually presents with a predominance of lymphocytes in the CSF, unlike a bacterial meningitis where the neutrophil cell count is usually high”.

“Protein levels may be slightly high. Bacterial culture will be negative. A PCR (polymerase chain reaction) assay for enterovirus can be done, and will be positive in most cases. The same PCR test can be done on oropharyngeal swabs, stool or blood,” McCarthy said.


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Cape Argus

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