CDC Alerts Doctors About an Increase in Bacterial Meningitis

Health officials say cases of severe and potentially fatal meningococcal disease attributable to a specific bacteria strain are increasing in the United States.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) is alerting doctors to be on the lookout for a specific strain of bacterial meningitis due to an uptick in reported cases.

According to a March 28 Health Advisory posted by the CDC Health Alert Network, 422 cases of meningitis attributable to Neisseria meningitidis serogroup Y bacteria were reported in the United States in 2023.

However, the latest CDC surveillance data shows that 143 serogroup Y-related meningitis cases have been reported from January 1 to March 25, 2024 — 62 more than reported at the same time last year.

Serogroup Y is one of four strains — serogroups B, C, W, and Y — that circulate in the U.S.

Typically, children and college students are more likely to experience bacterial meningitis. However, the CDC says that among reported cases of serogroup Y, 65% occurred in people ages 30 to 60, 63% in Black individuals, and 15% in people with HIV.

Moreover, the agency warned doctors that the symptoms of this meningococcal strain differ from those of other strains. Typically, symptoms of bacterial meningitis include headaches, fever, a stiff neck, nausea, and an aversion to bright lights.

However, health officials say 64% of people who have become ill with a serogroup Y infection present with symptoms of a blood infection, including fever, chills, vomiting, rapid breathing, and eventually, a dark purple rash.

While the symptoms are vague, they worsen rapidly and can lead to death within hours. So, individuals with meningitis must receive prompt diagnosis and treatment with antibiotics.

According to the CDC, among the reported cases with known outcomes, 18% died — a fatality rate higher than the historical case-fatality rate of 11% reported for serogroup Y cases from 2017 to 2021.

What is meningitis?

Meningitis is a bacterial or viral disease that causes brain and spinal cord inflammation. It is contagious and transmits via respiratory secretions much like the common cold.

While both bacterial and viral meningitis can produce similar symptoms, including fever, headache, stiff neck, sensitivity to light, drowsiness, and confusion, a person with bacterial meningitis may present with more severe symptoms, including a rash, nausea, vomiting, or sore throat.

People with viral meningitis typically need no treatment and recover in three to 10 days. However, bacterial meningitis is more severe and requires immediate treatment with antibiotics.

In the U.S., around one in 100,000 people develop bacterial meningitis each year, and most are children, college students, or elderly adults. Cases usually peak in the winter months or early spring.

A vaccine that protects against bacterial meningitis, including serogroup Y, is available in the U.S. The CDC recommends that all 11- to 12-year-olds receive one dose of the MenACWY vaccine and a booster shot at age 16.

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