WASHINGTON – Fears of a scarlet fever epidemic in Maryland have more to do with sensationalistic press coverage than any real danger of an outbreak, said local doctors and hospital officials.
The actual caseload is about normal, say health officials, but the number of people who are showing up at doctors’ offices and hospitals with scarlet fever fears is up.
“This often happens with the media,” said Dr. Jim Chamberlain, chairman of emergency medicine at Children’s Hospital in Washington. “I think the media has to be careful in how they present this disease.”
As of Thursday, Montgomery County had confirmed 16 cases of scarlet fever in 14 schools and Prince George’s County reported 44 cases at 38 schools. Health officials in Calvert County said they have had about 10 cases, while Anne Arundel, Howard and Baltimore counties reported caseloads within the normal range.
State health officials said parents should not ignore symptoms of the easily treatable ailment, but they should relax about its potential dangers.
“This really doesn’t represent a dangerous health threat,” said Jeff Roche, acting state epidemiologist with the Maryland Department of Health and Mental Hygiene. “We are not seeing a pattern of transmission, but we are encouraging everyone to keep talking to one another.”
Chamberlain singled out the Washington Post for criticism, saying its reports earlier this month on the first confirmed scarlet fever cases in a District school mentioned that it can lead to meningitis or encephalitis, without specifying how extremely rare that is.
“In my 15 years of pediatric practice, I have never seen a case of either developing from scarlet fever,” he said.
Children’s Hospital, which has outpatient centers in Montgomery, Prince George’s and Frederick counties, has seen a typical number of cases, but a sharp rise in concerned parents bringing in their children out of fear they have the disease, he said.
Laurel Hospital has had cases of parents hearing about the symptoms of the illness from the media and bringing their children in even though they didn’t have strep throat or scarlet fever, said hospital spokeswoman Tracy Veihmeyer.
Southern Maryland Hospital Center spokesman Dave DeClark said the Clinton facility has also seen an increase in people concerned their child has scarlet fever.
“Anytime you see illnesses like that in the news, we have to prepare ourselves for patients who come in and think they have that illness,” DeClark said.
The Washington Post has run seven stories or briefs about recent scarlet fever cases, which have also been covered in the Journal papers, the Associated Press and local broadcast media.
“It’s an oddly named illness that conjures up images of medieval sickness,” said Brian Porter, spokesman for Montgomery schools. He said the schools are working to give parents the latest information.
Scarlet fever is not dangerous if treated, so the state has designated it a non-reportable disease. Local and state government agencies, therefore, do not track the number of cases in the schools. Roche, in fact, said he knew the number of cases because of press coverage.
Still, Chamberlain said he treats every potential case of scarlet fever seriously.
“We try to reassure the families that their child is OK and that it isn’t an emergency,” Chamberlain said. “Last week in particular, the emergency department was mobbed with worried parents.”
Scarlet fever not only is easy to treat but also is easy to avoid. Roche said good hygiene, such as good hand-washing, proper disposal of tissues and not sharing cups, spoons and other utensils, is recommended to avoid the illness.