top of page

The CDC warns doctors to be vigilant for a rare and serious bacterial infection presenting with atypical symptoms.

(CNN)- Health officials are alerting doctors to be on the lookout for certain types of rare, serious meningococcal infections that are on the rise in the United States.

The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) issued a new health alert regarding infections caused by a specific strain of Neisseria meningitidis bacteria, which may present with unusual symptoms. This year, about 1 in 6 identified cases have resulted in death, a higher fatality rate than typically seen with meningococcal infections.

These cases are particularly unusual as they are affecting middle-aged adults, whereas meningitis infections usually strike babies, adolescents, and young adults.

The CDC’s alert follows a warning from the Virginia Department of Health in September about five deaths from this rare and serious form of meningococcal disease.

Meningococcal disease encompasses any illness caused by Neisseria meningitidis and can result in both meningitis and septicemia, a severe bloodstream infection also known as blood poisoning.

The bacteria can spread from person to person through the exchange of respiratory and throat secretions, typically occurring via kissing, coughing, sneezing, or close contact with an infected person.

There are four groups of meningococcal bacteria known to circulate in the United States: B, C, W, and Y. According to the CDC, there were 422 cases of disease caused by these bacteria reported in the United States in 2023, the highest number since 2014. Most of these cases were caused by a particular strain, ST-1466, within the Y subgroup.

So far, 2024 is on track to exceed that number. To date, 143 cases have been reported in the United States, almost 80% more than at the same point in 2023.

The CDC notes that most individuals diagnosed with this strain are adults aged 30 to 60. A disproportionate number of cases, 63%, are among Black people, and 15% are in people who have HIV.

Typical symptoms of meningitis infections include fever, headache, stiff neck, sensitivity to light, and nausea. However, many of the recently reported cases do not exhibit these symptoms. Instead, about two-thirds of patients have bloodstream infections, characterized by sepsis, and around 4% have experienced painful, infected joints, which can lead to arthritis.

Symptoms of meningococcal bloodstream infections include fever and chills, fatigue, vomiting, cold hands and feet, rapid breathing, diarrhea, and, in later stages, a dark purple rash due to bleeding under the skin. This rash is a critical sign of severe infection and requires immediate medical attention.

The initial symptoms can mimic various other infections, such as the flu or other viral illnesses, but they deteriorate rapidly, becoming life-threatening within hours, according to the CDC. Immediate antibiotic treatment is crucial to improve survival chances and reduce complications. Survivors may suffer long-term consequences such as hearing loss, neurological damage, or limb amputations due to tissue damage from the infection.

There is a vaccine available that protects against bacterial meningitis. The MenACWY vaccine is recommended for children aged 11 to 12, with a booster dose typically administered at age 16 due to decreased immunity over time. Additionally, the MenB vaccine is available and recommended for certain high-risk groups. The vaccines are also recommended for individuals with specific medical conditions that weaken the immune system, such as HIV, as well as for travelers to certain regions where meningococcal disease is more common.

The CDC suggests that people in high-risk groups, including those with compromised immune systems and certain medical conditions, receive booster shots every 3 to 5 years to maintain protection. Awareness and timely vaccination are crucial in preventing the spread of this serious disease.


bottom of page