Five people have died from complications of a “rare but serious illness” in Virginia following a statewide outbreak of meningococcal disease, the Virginia Department of Health announced.
Twenty-seven cases of the disease, caused by the bacteria Neisseria meningitidis type Y, have been reported in eastern, central, and southwest Virginia since June 2022, according to the department.
Most case-patients are Black or African American adults between 30 to 60 years of age, according to the Virginia Health Department. Only one person was vaccinated for Neisseria meningitidis type Y out of the 27 reported cases.
“This development is three times the expected number of cases during this time period,” the department said in a news release Wednesday.
The strain associated with this outbreak is known to be circulating more widely in the United States, according to the Virginia Health Department.
Most of the cases are in residents of eastern Virginia, where a regional outbreak was first announced in September 2022, according to the release. There were three deaths and 12 cases reported in the most recent alert from the department in March 2023, prior to Wednesday’s notice.
What is meningococcal disease and how does it spread?
Meningococcal disease refers to any sickness caused by Neisseria meningitidis, CNN previously reported. The infection can lead to both meningitis and a serious infection of the bloodstream called septicemia, or blood poisoning.
The bacteria can spread from person to person through the exchange of respiratory and throat secretions, and typically occurs via kissing, coughing, sneezing or living in close contact with others who are infected.
Symptoms can mimic the flu or Covid-19 and include a headache, fever, nausea or vomiting, brain fog, sensitivity to light, sleepiness or trouble waking, a stiff neck and possibly a skin rash.
Health experts say anyone experiencing related symptoms should get treatment quickly.
“Doctors treat bacterial meningitis with a number of antibiotics. It is important to start treatment as soon as possible,” according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Meningococcal prevention and safety
The CDC advises keeping up to date on vaccines as a key step in preventing bacterial and viral meningitis.
The Virginia Department of Health also recommends the following measures to prevent the spread while the outbreak continues:
- Don’t share personal items (e.g., vapes, lipsticks, toothbrushes).
- Practice good hand hygiene.
- Avoid close contact with people who are sick.
- Do not delay seeking care if you experience symptoms of meningococcal disease.
- Ensure adolescents and teenagers receive the meningococcal conjugate vaccine (MenACWY) on schedule at 11 or 12 years of age and then a booster dose at 15-16 years of age.
- Speak to your healthcare provider if you are at increased risk for meningococcal disease to ensure you are up to date on the MenACWY vaccine.