A Lake Anne Elementary School substitute teacher was hospitalized with viral meningitis last week, days after a teacher at Armstrong Elementary School was also diagnosed with the disease.
The two known Reston cases followed two confirmed viral meningitis cases in Chantilly earlier this month, which left one 16-year-old Chantilly High School student dead and another hospitalized.
Monday, county health officials announced they had diagnosed a total of six likely cases of viral meningitis in the last two weeks.
Since Courtney "Kay" Richards died from the disease on June 17, the health department has investigated an additional 19 cases of patients exhibiting symptoms. Of those cases, they diagnosed the six probable cases, including Richards, and identified 11 more that did not meet both clinical and laboratory tests, but could not be ruled out entirely.
Dr. Gloria Addo-Ayensu, the Fairfax County health director, said that while a death because of viral meningitis is extremely rare, the other cases are not uncommon. According to the Centers for Disease Control, it would not be unusual for a county with 1.2 million residents, such as Fairfax County, to see as many as 120 cases a year.
"Viral meningitis is common," Addo-Ayensu said. "It occurs every year. This is the season for viral meningitis."
Viral meningitis is not considered dangerous enough to be tracked annually, so the county health department lacks specific data for comparison. However, Addo-Ayensu stressed the increased visibility of the disease over the last two weeks is not evidence of a public-health crisis.
"There is nothing mysterious happening in Fairfax County," she said. "This is unfolding in all parts of the county."
When Virginia last kept statistics on viral meningitis, in 1997, the state Department of Health reported 262 cases. Most of those cases were reported between June and October, the peak season for the disease.
Nationwide, an average of 50,000 people are hospitalized from viral meningitis annually, Addo-Ayensu said.
FAIRFAX COUNTY Public Schools, the focal point of the four identified cases of viral meningitis this month, has been talking with parents from Reston and Chantilly, assuring them there is little to worry about.
"The bottom line is this is not a health risk," said Paul Regnier, the school system's spokesman. "I talked to a couple parents from Lake Anne today and they weren't freaked out."
Theresa Grill, Lake Anne Elementary School's outgoing PTA president, said she is not personally concerned and neither are most of the other parents with whom she has spoken.
"You always have to be careful with communicable diseases, but it doesn't seem like this should rise to such a high level of hysteria," she said.
Regnier likened viral meningitis to influenza ó a common disease that can sometimes lead to death.
"There's people hospitalized for the flu all the time," he said. "Once in a great while someone dies from it."
Simply because all of the known cases have been tied to two Reston elementary schools and Chantilly High School does not necessarily mean there is any link to the school system or evidence the cases are linked at all, said Addo-Ayensu.
Rather, she said, the cases have probably been school-connected because students are typically in close quarters at school and tend to share water bottles, eating utensils and other items that can transfer body fluids.
If a child begins to exhibit symptoms of viral meningitis now, it is unlikely it was contracted while at school because the school year ended on June 18, closing the window of the disease's incubation period of 10 days.
"The school system just happens to be the environment in which the first cases were elaborated," Addo-Ayensu said, warning the public to expect more cases in the coming months.
VIRAL MENINGITIS is an infection of the tissues that cover the brain and spinal cord. It can be caused by numerous viruses, ranging from herpes to West Nile. Only one out of every 1,000 people who come in contact with one of these viruses actually exhibits symptoms.
Two of the six recent cases in Fairfax County were caused by enteroviruses, a classification of viruses encompassing several gastrointestinal viruses.
Symptoms of viral meningitis include fever, severe headache, stiff neck, neck pain, nausea and vomiting, possibly a rash and sensitivity to bright light. No specific treatment exists for treating the disease.
In rare cases, meningitis can be caused by bacteria. Bacterial meningitis has the same symptoms as viral meningitis, but is a more severe condition that can be treated with antibiotics and sometimes prevented with a vaccine.
The county health department urged residents to avoid sharing eating utensils, lip balm, lipstick, water bottles and other personal items. Also, health officials stressed the importance of washing hands frequently, especially before eating and using the bathroom.