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Meningitis vaccinations finish, but rumors swirl

Health officials Saturday finished the third and final day of mass immunization for bacterial meningitis, a disease that infected seven and killed an 18-year-old.

Local and state officials have given nearly 15,000 vaccinations for the deadly disease to residents of this small town 45 miles south of Jacksonville, said Dr. Greg Stamper, medical director of the Putnam County Health Department.

The next step is to quell the spreading panic about the outbreak.

"We are trying to dispel lots of rumors that tend to cause panic," Stamper said.

A persistent mix of wild rumors and serious concerns plague residents of Putnam County, where the cases of bacterial meningitis began to appear Dec. 12.

"We've heard something about a pilot who was flying over the city of Palatka and was concerned about contracting the disease that way," state Department of Health spokeswoman Pam Potter-Ricco said Friday.

"We've heard from people who drove through the city and worried about catching the disease that way. There was even a rumor that you could get it from hot dogs," Potter-Ricco said.

None of the stories are true.

Officials became aware of the outbreak when a 2-year-old tested positive for the disease.

Seven people are known to have contracted bacterial meningitis and one, 18-year-old George Smith, died from the infection earlier this week.

State officials launched the free immunizations to control the further spread of the disease.

Meningitis is an infection of the fluid surrounding the brain and spinal cord, and is sometimes called spinal meningitis.

According to the state Department of Health, the disease is spread by close, personal contact with an infected person over an extended period. The disease is typically spread through activities such as kissing and sharing cups, Stamper said.

Citing concerns from parents, the Board of Education announced Thursday that schools would be closed for a week. Health officials say canceling classes is an unnecessary precaution.

"We do not believe that there is a risk for transmission at school," Stamper said.

For information call the Department of Health hotline at (888) 880-5782 or check the department's Web site at http://www.doh.state.fl.us

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