An outbreak of meningitis in East Sussex last month led to thousands of people being given antibiotics as a protection against infection.

However, health experts are urging people to keep calm and reminding them the number of cases reported every year is small.

The sudden, tragic death of a schoolgirl from meningitis has, understandably, sparked concern from parents worried about their own children.

A second case at the school in Bexhill made health bosses decide to invite pupils and teachers to be given antibiotics to fight against the disease.

Earlier this year, The Argus told the story of Clare Forbes from Crawley, who was 17 when she was struck down by meningitis and a brain haemorrhage, losing both legs below the knee.

She is determined not to let her problems defeat her and has been widely praised for her efforts to get on with her life.

Although meningitis and meningococcal septicaemia are not common diseases, once contracted, they are very dangerous and can develop rapidly.

Health bosses stress the chance of developing meningitis is extremely rare and while people should be aware of the signs, they should not panic.

Health officials in both East and West Sussex have conducted a successful vaccination campaign against the C strain of meningitis.

Vaccinations are available against the A and C strains but not the B strain. The C vaccine was introduced in November 1999 and is now part of the routine childhood immunisation scheme.

A programme to offer the vaccine to all under-18s was started in 2000 and has had an enormous impact on the number of cases.

There were 25 confirmed cases of the C strain of meningitis in Brighton and Hove and the rest of East Sussex in 1999, compared to seven in 2001.

Experts from the Meningitis Trust, based in Gloucestershire, say underfives, 14 to 25 year olds and over-55s are most at risk.

A spokesman said: "The bacteria are very common and live naturally in the back of the nose and throat.

It is spread by people coughing, sneezing and intimate kissing. The bacteria do not live for very long outside the body so cannot be picked up from water supplies, swimming pools or buildings.

"People of any age can carry the bacteria for days, weeks or months without becoming ill. Occasionally, the bacteria overcome the bodys defences and cause meningitis and meningococcal septicaemia."

Parents are urged to keep a close eye on the early signs of the disease. Symptoms include severe headache, stiff neck, fever, vomiting, drowsiness, discomfort from bright lights, back and joint pains and a rash which does not turn white when pressed.

A study carried out on behalf of the Meningitis Trust earlier this year found more than a third of people questioned admitted they could not spot the common symptoms of meningitis.

It found that 39 per cent of the 500-plus people asked in Brighton did not know the warning signs.

Almost half, 48 per cent, did not know about the glass test used to detect blood poisoning associated with meningitis.

A rash of tiny spots appear and they do not turn white when a glass is pressed against the skin.

Meningitis is the inflammation of the tissues which cover the brain and spinal cord. Most cases in the UK and Ireland are caused by bacteria.

Meningococcal septicaemia is a type of blood poisoning caused by the same bacteria that cause the most common form of bacterial meningitis. It is the more life-threatening form of the disease.

With septicaemia, the bacteria release toxins into the blood which break down the walls of the blood vessels allowing blood to leak out under the skin.

This causes tell-tale marks on the skin - a rash of red or brownish pinprick spots which develop into purple bruises, blood blisters or blood spots.

Septicaemia can make people very ill because it reduces the amount of blood reaching vital organs such as the liver and kidneys.

Scientists do not yet fully understand why a few people develop meningitis or septicaemia from bacteria which are harmless to most of us.

In 1999, there were about 3,500 reported cases of meningococcal meningitis and septicaemia in the UK.

About five people in every 100,000 of the population will be affected by meningococcal disease each year.

At least 95 per cent of people recover from meningococcal meningitis but the recovery rate in patients with meningococcal septicaemia can be as low as 50 per cent, depending on the severity of the disease.

Further details about meningococcal disease can be obtained from the National Meningitis Trust on 0845 6000 800.