Meningitis Cases Are On The Rise And It’s The Latest Infectious Disease Worry

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Federal health officials have issued a health alert in response to a surge in cases of bacterial meningococcal disease, urging healthcare provider across the United States to remain vigilant for individuals exhibiting symptoms of this rare yet potentially deadly illness.

According to the Centers of Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), there have been 143 reported cases of infection with a rare invasive meningococcal bacterial strain in the country so far this year, marking a significant increase of 62 cases compared to the same period last year.

Of the 94 patients with known outcomes from 2023, 18 percent succumbed to the illness, representing a higher fatality rate than the historical average of 11 percent reported between 2017 and 2021.

An infectious disease specialist and a professor of preventive medicine and health policy at the Vanderbilt University School of Medicine in Nashville, Tennessee, William Schaffner, MD, says “This rise in cases is unexpected because meningococcal disease, which causes meningitis and bloodstream infections, has been on a steady downward course in the United States for 10 years now.”

Meningitis refers to inflammation of the membranes encasing the brain and spinal cord, commonly triggered by viral infections, although it can stem from bacterial, parasitic, and fungal infections.

Getting Vaccinated Against Meningitis Has Kept It In Check

Vaccination is the primary means of preventing meningococcal disease, with recommendations for adolescents aged 11 to 12 and unvaccinated college freshmen residing in dormitories. Due to waning immunity, the CDC advises a booster dose at age 16.

The meningococcal vaccine provides protection against various bacterial strains causing illness, including the uncommon ST-1466 strain implicated in many recent infections. However, the latest CDC data do not specify how many of this year’s cases occurred in vaccinated individuals.

A reduction in cigarette smoking may have also contributed to decreased susceptibility and a decline in meningococcal cases in recent years.

Who Faces the Highest Risk of Meningitis?

Federal health officials have alerted that the recent surge in disease disproportionately impacts individuals aged 30 to 60, Black Americans, and those with human immunodeficiency virus (HIV).

The CDC highlights that individuals with HIV, due to weakened immune systems, experience more frequent and severe infections.

While the reasons behind the heightened susceptibility of Black Americans to the illness remain unclear, research indicates that a gene mutation prevalent in this population may increase their vulnerability to infection.

How Contagious is Meningitis and How Does It Spread?

Meningococcal bacteria spreads from person to person through respiratory and throat secretions (saliva or spit), typically during close contact like coughing or kissing. Transmission may also occur via shared drinks, cigarettes, smoking devices, or marijuana.

Dr. Schaffner says, “Young adults may be more susceptible if they go to bars where there’s a lot of close, very personal interaction with other people, such as vigorous talking.”

However, the CDC emphasizes that meningococcal disease is not easily transmitted through casual contact or by breathing air in the vicinity of an infected individual, as is the case with the flu.

Here are the Symptoms of Meningitis

The typical symptoms of meningococcal disease include fever, headache, and a stiff neck, along with possible nausea, vomiting, sensitivity to light, and confusion.

Additionally, the bacteria can lead to bloodstream infections, characterized by symptoms such as fever, chills, fatigue, vomiting, cold extremities, severe aches and pains, rapid breathing, diarrhea, and, in advanced stages, a dark purple rash.

In some cases, patients with bloodstream infections or septic arthritis – a joint infection resulting from meningococcal bacteria – may exhibit no apparent signs of illness.

“Because people can carry these meningococcal bacteria back in their nasal pharynx and in their throat without knowing it, the illness is thought to often spread from a person without symptoms,” says Dr. Schaffner.

Prompt Treatment Needed for Bacterial Meningitis

If meningococcal disease is detected early, it can be effectively treated with antibiotics. However, the infection can progress rapidly, causing severe damage to the body that antibiotics may not be able to prevent, leading to serious long-term complications or even death. Survivors may endure lasting effects such as deafness or limb amputations.

This urgency has prompted federal health officials to urge healthcare providers to remain vigilant for signs of the disease, especially among vulnerable populations. They also encourage the public to ensure they are up-to-date on their vaccinations and advise those who may have been in close contact with an infected individual to take preventive antibiotics.

While the overall risk of contracting meningococcal disease is low, Dr. Schaffner cautions that everyone should remain aware of the situation.

“We’re not entirely sure why this increase in cases is going on, but we need to be aware and respond to keep transmission as low as possible,” he says.