WASHINGTON – At least 21 cases of scarlet fever have been diagnosed in Montgomery and Prince George’s County elementary schools in the wake of a scarlet fever outbreak in seven Washington schools.
All but four of the Maryland cases have occurred in different schools, and since there is no apparent link between the rest of the cases, state health officials said it is too soon to call it an outbreak.
But state and local officials are monitoring the situation, said Jeff Roche, acting state epidemiologist with the Maryland Department of Health and Mental Hygiene.
“We’re not calling it an outbreak,” Roche said. “Before we can do that, we need evidence that it was transmitted from one child to another.”
Because doctors are no longer required to report cases of the illness to the state, officials do not have an accurate figure on the total number of cases.
“The health department is not concerned about the number of cases,” said Brian Porter, spokesman for the Montgomery County Public Schools, noting that the numbers are not large in relation to the overall size of the 134,000-student school system.
If not treated, scarlet fever can lead to kidney or heart damage, rheumatic fever, and, in exceptional cases, death. Despite its scary-sounding name, however, scarlet fever is a fairly innocuous disease if treated with antibiotics.
Scarlet fever is caused by the same streptococcus bacteria that causes strep throat. Symptoms are similar to strep throat — sore throat, fever, trouble swallowing, swollen lymph nodes and possible ear and sinus infections.
Those with scarlet fever also get a red sandpaper-textured rash and a swollen, reddened tongue from which the disease get its name. Some also get white spots on their tonsils.
It is spread through person-to-person contact, usually involving direct contact. Children are particularly susceptible due to being confined in classrooms and their sometimes poor hygiene, Roche said.
Treatment consists of a 10-day antibiotic regimen. After 24 hours of antibiotics, a person is no longer contagious and may return safely to school or work.
School officials in Montgomery and Prince George’s counties notified parents at the affected schools about the scarlet fever cases and sent home letters about the disease and its treatment.
In Prince George’s County, cases have been confirmed at Apple Grove, Beltsville, Owens Road, Francis T. Evans and Glenbridge elementary schools.
Two Montgomery County schools — Bradley Hills and Kensington Parkwood elementaries — have reported two cases of the fever. Other schools that have reported one case were Viers Mill, Diamond, Cloverly, Beverly Farms, Greencastle, Somerset, Rolling Terrace, Ronald McNair, Bannockburn, Highland View, Lake Seneca and Garrett Park.
Roche said an outbreak is defined as three or more connected cases. The last outbreak of scarlet fever in Maryland was in Baltimore in 1989, he said.