Virginia’s public health leaders monitoring cases of invasive meningococcal disease

Published: Aug. 8, 2023 at 1:13 PM EDT
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ROANOKE, Va. (WDBJ) - In the last 18 months, Virginia’s Department of Health identified three cases of invasive meningococcal disease (IMD) in the Roanoke City Alleghany Health District.

The bacteria can lead to serious disease, including meningitis, swelling of the lining of the brain or spinal cord, or a bloodstream infection (septicemia). It is spread from person to person, usually from respiratory secretions. The incubation period can last for up to 10 days.

While health leaders there say it’s not a threat for the general public, there is some reason to be concerned about those three cases.

“Now that may not sound like a lot. And thankfully, that’s not a lot,” said Dr. Cynthia Morrow during a press briefing Tuesday. “But if we compare that to the 10 years prior, we had two cases in 10 years compared to three cases in the last 18 months. And unfortunately, we’re seeing cases in other parts of the state as well.”

Dr. Morrow, leader of the RCAHD, said there are six different serotypes, or strains, of the bacteria. All of the recent cases have had the same serotype, leading the health district to believe they are associated. The good news is that this strain is covered by the vaccine.

Morrow said the state is monitoring this as outbreaks have been recorded in other parts of the state. Statewide, the Virginia Department of Health has detected 27 total cases of this type of invasive meningococcal disease (type Y) over the last 18 months. The majority are associated with the community outbreak in eastern Virginia. The southwest region reported five cases during the same time period.

The disease has a 10 to 15 percent fatality rate.

“We do want to make sure that there is awareness and those people in those risk groups talk to their doctors, their health care professionals about getting vaccinated,” said Dr. Morrow. “We are going to continue to look for commonalities between cases across the state.”

Fortunately, it’s a vaccine-preventable illness. Typically, children are inoculated at ages 11 and 12 and get a booster at age 16. But Dr. Morrow is more concerned for at-risk adults.

The Centers for Diseases Control recommends vaccination of high-risk adults, including:

  • people living with HIV,
  • people who do not have a spleen (including people who have sickle cell disease whose spleens may be damaged),
  • people who have specific immune conditions called “complement deficiency”, and
  • people who take a type of drug called a “complement inhibitor.”

Dr. Morrow said if someone is identified as having contracted the bacteria, doctors and health care professionals should call the Virginia Department of Health immediately.

“We’ll facilitate doing a contact investigation similar to COVID, where we find out who’s had contact with the respiratory secretions of that individual,” said Dr. Morrow. “And thankfully, we have something called post exposure prophylaxis. There’s an antibiotic that we can give to the household members or to anyone who’s had an exchange of respiratory secretions.”