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Virginia Experiencing Deadly Outbreak of Meningococcal Disease Leave a comment

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An outbreak of meningococcal disease in Virginia has sickened dozens of people and killed at least five, local health officials reported this week. Though severe cases are typically rare, the state has seen a noticeable increase over the past year. The bacterial infection is vaccine-preventable, and most cases during this outbreak have been unvaccinated.

Meningococcal disease is caused by Neisseria meningitidis (a relative of the bacteria that cause gonorrhea). About one in every ten people in the U.S. are thought to carry the bacteria without feeling sick at any one time, usually in the back of their throat. But sometimes, the bacteria can invade other parts of the body and cause life-threatening illness. It can reach the lining of the brain and spinal cord and cause meningitis, for instance, or seep into the bloodstream, which can trigger a systematic overreaction of the immune system, known as sepsis. There are six broad groups of these bacteria that can sicken humans, with three groups (B, C, and Y) being the most commonly seen in the U.S.

On Wednesday, the Virginia Department of Health reported that the state has seen an unusual increase in meningococcal disease caused by group Y bacteria as of late. There have been 27 cases across eastern, central, and southwest Virginia documented since June 2022—about three times the number more than expected. Of these cases, five people have died from complications of the infection.

Most cases have been reported in eastern Virginia, and testing has found that the cases are being caused by highly genetically related strains of the bacteria. But officials have not identified a common risk factor for its spread as of yet. Generally, these bacteria are transmitted via a person’s saliva and spit, such as through kissing or sharing personal items like lipstick. Meningococcal bacteria are not as contagious as other respiratory infections like the flu or covid-19, though, and it tends to require close, prolonged contact for transmission to happen.

There are two broad types of vaccines available for meningococcal disease in the U.S. One childhood vaccine is recommended for all people starting at age 11 and helps prevent cases caused by four groups of the bacteria, including C and Y. The second vaccine targets only group B bacteria and is recommended for teens who might be at greater risk of severe illness, such as those with weaker immune systems.

Though these vaccines aren’t 100% effective at preventing infection, they have led to a continued decline in meningococcal disease in the U.S. since their introduction, especially among teens. Notably, all but one case in the Virginia outbreak so far has been unvaccinated.

Officials say that the risk of meningococcal disease remains low for the general public. But they are warning people during this outbreak to practice good hand hygiene, avoid sharing items like vapes or toothbrushes, and get properly vaccinated if they’re not up to date.

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