Are meningitis outbreaks common?
Meningococcal disease—meningococcal meningitis or meningococcal septicemia, which are the two forms of this disease—are diseases that reappear from time to time. They're cyclical throughout the world. They're more common in underdeveloped countries, probably due to crowding and socio-economic underdevelopment, but they happen in other countries as well.
In the US, for example, the last big outbreak occurred in the 1990s. So we haven't had one in a while. But it does happen from time to time in certain groups who tend to live together or congregate, especially college students, because they group together and they're at the right age where most of these outbreaks occur. To give an example, in the 10 years between 2007 and 2017, there were about 11 outbreaks. So they're not rare.
How big is this latest outbreak?
This one that has occurred in Florida is relatively large; 22 cases is what the Florida Department of Health reported around April 15th. That's far above the norm. These diseases occur endemically, meaning that there's a background rate of occurrence, but they can also occur in an epidemic way like this one—in a cluster where you get more cases occurring in a geographically concentrated area, among groups of people or in a certain city or college and so forth.
Now these outbreaks tend to be rather protracted, and cases don't occur all at the same time. So we may have seen three cases at the beginning of the month and there will be three cases next week and so forth. And these outbreaks can last up to a year.
There were no cases in Sarasota, of the ones that have occurred to date.
How dangerous is meningitis?
This disease, unlike many others, is hyperacute, so you can get the disease in the morning and you can be dead in the evening. So if you have the symptoms, you have to seek medical treatment right away, and usually you go to an emergency room.
What are some of the signs and symptoms that people should look out for, and when should you go ahead and seek that medical care?
For meningitis, you get hit with a very severe headache, fever, and body aches. Sometimes nausea; vomiting. If you are in a high-risk group in Florida and you get a fever with a headache, you better go to the emergency room. Because you don't mess around with this.
Occasionally people confuse this with influenza, or even with COVID, but generally the body aches are severe. If it's something that looks out of proportion, beware.
What should people do to protect themselves from meningitis outbreaks?
Parents and young people need to be vaccinated. The main thing is prevention, and prevention is vaccination.
There are different vaccination recommendations for different age groups, and your doctor will be able to advise you on how best to protect yourself.
The most common meningococcal vaccine series usually starts at the age of 11 years. However, children with certain conditions may receive it earlier, and there's a national recommendation for a booster five years later. Another meningococcal vaccine is recommended for teenagers and young adults aged 16–23 years, especially if they fall into a high-risk category.
How contagious is meningitis?
Meningitis is transmitted from human to human, through close contact, traditional droplet transmission. It's not really airborne, like measles or COVID. It requires close contact, usually prolonged. So it happens in congregated living facilities like colleges, military barracks and places of that nature. People that congregate in clubs, that get together in close contact, kissing. That's how it gets passed on; not so much the casual contact.
Is meningitis exasperated by COVID or flu or other respiratory infections?
No. Fortunately, this is one thing that we don't have to worry about.
There are certain conditions that make you more prone to get it and more prone to get severe disease. Those are, fortunately, relatively rare conditions. For example, sickle cell anemia and all diseases that attack the spleen.
Are we seeing less of a desire to get this vaccine because of the anti-vax sentiments from COVID?
The scientific answer is that we don't know because nobody has studied that. But a couple of things have happened in the last few years.
One is, due to the pandemic, there's been less access to care, and people have been deferring medical care, and this includes vaccinations. There are a lot of kids and adults that have fallen behind in their vaccination, and not necessarily because of being anti-vaxxers. Now the other part is the misinformation and the anti-vaxxers. I'm sure that there is some effect because that's what anti-vaxxers do.
To sum up: get vaccinated, right?
The first line of protection is to get vaccinated.
Sometimes these things go away temporarily and then reoccur, so just stay tuned and follow all the public health advice coming from the Florida Department of Health and the CDC on this.