Health authorities in Virginia have announced a statewide outbreak of meningococcal disease after 27 cases, including five deaths, were reported.

"Twenty-seven cases of meningococcal disease, caused by the bacteria called Neisseria meningitidis type Y, have been reported in eastern, central and southwest Virginia since June 2022. This development is three times the expected number of cases during this time period," the Virginia Department of Health said in a news release.

Out of the 27 reported cases, only one person was vaccinated against the infection. In most cases, the patients were Black or African American adults between 30 and 60 years of age, the officials said.

Meningococcal disease is a rare but serious illness that affects meningitis (the lining of the brain and spinal cord) and the bloodstream. The infection is contagious and gets transmitted through mucus from prolonged or close contact.

Symptoms of meningococcal disease:

There are two types of meningococcal infections; meningitis and septicemia. The symptoms of meningococcal meningitis are similar to flu or COVID-19 and they include:

  • Fever and fatigue
  • Headache
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Stiffness of neck
  • Photophobia (sensitivity to light)
  • Rapid breathing
  • Loss of appetite
  • Muscle pain
  • Irritability and confusion
  • Seizures

Septicemia occurs when the disease-causing bacteria enter the bloodstream, causing damage to the blood vessels. Symptoms of meningococcal septicemia include fever, chills, nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, cold hands and feet, body aches and a dark purple rash on the skin in the later stages.

Prevention and treatment

The best way to prevent meningococcal disease is vaccination. However, like other vaccines, meningococcal vaccination may not provide 100% protection against the disease.

People who are in close contact with infected patients are given antibiotics to prevent them from getting the disease. Although rare, people who once had a meningococcal disease can get it again.

Simple steps such as avoiding close contact with infected people, good hand hygiene and not sharing personal items can prevent transmission.

Health experts recommend anyone with symptoms to take immediate care to reduce the risk of fatality from the infection. Patients diagnosed with meningococcal disease should be given antibiotics as soon as possible. Other treatments include providing breathing support, administering blood pressure-lowering medications and surgery to remove dead tissue.

The mortality rate of meningococcal disease is 10 to 15% even when the patients are treated with antibiotics. Many of the survivors also suffer from long-term consequences such as deafness, limb loss, nerve damage, kidney damage or brain damage.