Cases of meningococcal disease are spreading throughout Virginia. The serious condition can lead to septicemia and meningitis. “Though the outbreak first occurred in eastern Virginia in September 2022, it has now spread to central and southwestern Virginia,” reports Dr. Rebekah Sensenig, Infectious Disease Physician with Riverside Health System. Learn about this condition and how to protect your family.
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Understanding meningococcal disease
Contact with a specific bacterium (Neisseria meningitidis serogroup Y) can cause this rare, very serious illness. The bacterium currently spreading in our state most often causes a blood poisoning condition known as septicemia. Some people who have come in contact with the bacterium have also developed meningitis, an infection that causes the tissues around the brain and spinal cord to swell.
How meningococcal disease spreads
The disease spreads through lengthy or close contact – such as kissing or coughing – with someone who’s infected. It does not spread through the air (airborne). People who are at risk for contracting the disease from someone with meningococcal disease generally include:
- People in the same household
- Anyone with direct contact with the person’s mucus, such as through kissing
People at high risk for meningococcal disease
Certain groups of people are at an increased risk for developing serious illness if they come into contact with these bacteria. People at high risk include those with:
- Complement deficiency (a rare immune condition)
- Damaged or absent spleen
- Sickle cell disease
Signs and symptoms of meningococcal disease
People exposed to this bacteria typically experience:
- Muscle aches
Those who develop septicemia can also experience:
- Lightheadedness due to low blood pressure
- Rapid heart rate
Those who develop meningitis can also experience:
- Neck stiffness
- Photophobia (unusual light sensitivity)
- Small, red pinprick rash that turns into red or purple blotches
When to seek treatment for meningococcal disease
Meningococcal disease is not a condition you can treat at home. “If you notice signs of meningitis, it is critical to receive medical attention as soon as possible,” explains Dr. Sensenig. “You should go to your nearest emergency department.”
Treatments for meningococcal disease
Providers can treat meningococcal disease with a timely course of antibiotics during a hospital stay. The strain currently circulating in Virginia responds well to these medicines (such as ciprofloxacin and penicillin). These treatments are not as effective against strains founds in Maryland, northern Virginia and throughout the country.
You will most likely receive the medication via intravenous (IV) line. Depending on your needs and situation, your treatment may also include one or more of the following:
- Fluids to keep you hydrated
- Medicine to increase your blood pressure
- Oxygen therapy or a breathing machine (ventilation) to help you breathe
If you have developed meningococcal disease, it’s essential that your immediate family members also receive antibiotic treatment. Your health care team will support you and your family through your treatment journey.
People who have contracted meningococcal disease can have long-term health issues. Your health care team will provide information and resources for ongoing support after you leave the hospital.
Protect your family with a vaccine
Researchers have developed a vaccine that works against the specific strain of bacteria. “The best thing you can do to protect yourself and your family from serious illness is to get vaccinated,” shares Dr. Sensenig.
Make sure that you and your entire family are up-to-date on your meningococcal conjugate vaccine (MenACWY).
Current recommendations are that 11-12 year olds should get a MenACWY vaccine, with a booster dose at 16 years old. The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) also recommends meningococcal vaccination for other children and adults who are at increased risk for meningococcal disease. This includes:
- Having certain medical conditions such as complement deficiency, asplenia (lack of spleen), sickle cell disease, or HIV
- Taking specific medications such as complement inhibitors (Solaris or Ultomiris)
Check with your insurance provider for details on whether there would be any cost to you for this vaccine. Most private health insurance plans cover these vaccines but if your insurance provider does not cover, ask them for a list of in-network vaccine providers.
Get care now
Schedule an appointment with your primary care provider to make sure you’re current on all vaccinations.