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Virginia seeing statewide outbreak of serious meningococcal disease

Virginia's health department announced the state is seeing an outbreak of meningococcal disease, which can cause meningitis and death.
Virginia seeing statewide outbreak of serious meningococcal disease
Posted at 9:36 PM, Aug 31, 2023
and last updated 2023-08-31 21:36:39-04

The state of Virginia is seeing an outbreak of meningococcal disease, its health department said Wednesday.

Meningococcal disease is rare but serious, particularly when it includes meningitis, which is the swelling of the brain and spinal cord lining, or the bloodstream infection septicemia.

Virginia has seen 27 reported cases of meningococcal disease since June 2022, which the department said is three times more than the expected number of cases during the time period. Five of those cases ended in death after the bacterial infection caused complications to the patient.

Cases have been reported in eastern, central and southwest Virginia, but most have come from the eastern region. That's also where the state initially announced the outbreak as regional last September.

But the health department said the strain in its outbreak is "known to be circulating more widely in the United States" and carries a low risk of serious illness to its population.

The state's health officials haven't identified a common risk factor for those sick with the disease, but most of its cases have occurred in Black adults aged 30 to 60. Only one patient of the 27 reported was vaccinated against the disease, which is a recommended shot by the CDC for all Americans.

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The CDC says 10 to 15 in 100 people with meningococcal disease will die, and 1 in 5 survivors will have long-term disabilities. Those include loss of limbs, deafness, nervous system problems and brain damage.

Because of this, health officials say it's extremely important to receive medical treatment quickly once the disease has appeared and for Virginians to avoid close contact with others while the outbreak persists.

The bacteria that causes the disease is spread through prolonged contact with an infected person or through direct contact with an infected person's "respiratory and throat secretions," like through kissing, coughing or sharing cups. 

This bacteria can be found in a person's throat or nose without causing the disease. But warning symptoms will begin as flu-like before becoming more severe, later including symptoms such as the presence of a dark purple rash, the CDC says.

If doctors suspect the symptoms amount to the disease, they have to collect samples of blood or fluid near the spinal cord to test for it. 

Once it's detected, health professionals can treat it with antibiotics to reduce the risk of death, but still, some of those cases end with the worst outcome. The CDC says other treatments may include breathing support, blood pressure medication or surgery to remove dead tissue.

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