What is meningococcal disease? Symptoms to know as CDC warns of spike in bacterial infection

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is warning about a rise in meningococcal disease, a rare bacterial illnesses than can lead to meningitis, a potentially fatal infection. 

In an alert to doctors on Thursday, the CDC noted an increase in cases of one type of invasive meningococcal disease, most of it due to a specific strain of bacteria.

Last year, 422 cases of it were reported in the U.S. — the highest annual number since 2014. As of March 25 of this year, 143 cases have already been reported, meaning infections appear to be on track to surpass 2023, the CDC said. 

The cases were disproportionately more common in adults ages 30 to 60, in Black people and in people who have HIV, the CDC said.

Here’s what else to know about the disease: 

Meningococcal disease symptoms

Meningococcal disease can take several different forms. It usually presents as an infection of meningitis or a bloodstream infection, according to the CDC

“Both of these types of infections are very serious and can be deadly in a matter of hours,” the agency notes.

Meningococcal meningitis is when tissue covering the brain and spinal cord becomes infected and swollen. Symptoms usually include: 

Additional symptoms may include nausea, vomiting, confusion and photophobia (when eyes are more sensitive to light).

Meningococcal bloodstream infection damages the walls of the blood vessels and causes bleeding into the skin and organs. Possible symptoms include: 

  • Fever
  • Chills
  • Fatigue
  • Vomiting and diarrhea
  • Vold hands and feet
  • Severe aches
  • Rapid breathing
  • Dark purple rash

Meningococcal disease transmission 

People can spread meningococcal bacteria to others through respiratory and throat secretions (saliva or spit), according to the CDC.

This means the disease can be transmitted during extended close or direct contact, like coughing, sharing drinks or kissing.

“Fortunately, they are not as contagious as germs that cause the common cold or the flu,” the CDC notes. “People do not catch the bacteria through casual contact or by breathing air where someone with meningococcal disease has been.”

Is there a vaccine or treatment for meningococcal disease?

The infection can be treated with antibiotics, but quick treatment is essential. An estimated 10% to 15% of infected people die, and survivors sometimes suffer long-term issues such as loss of limbs, deafness, brain damage or nervous system problems.

There also are vaccines against meningococcal disease.

Officials recommend that all children should get a meningococcal conjugate vaccine, which protects against the rising strain, at around the time they enter middle school. 

Since vaccine protection fades, the CDC also recommends a booster dose at age 16. “Teens may also get a MenB vaccine, preferably at 16 through 18 years old,” the CDC says. 

Shots also are recommended for people at higher risk, like those in a place where an outbreak is occurring or those with HIV infection or certain other health conditions.

-Zoe Christen Jones and The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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