Virginia is experiencing a statewide outbreak of meningococcal disease. Do I need to worry?

Virginia experiencing statewide outbreak of meningococcal disease.
There's an outbreak of meningococcal disease in Virginia. Five people in the state have died from complications of the disease. (Photo Illustration: Victoria Ellis for Yahoo News; photos: Getty Images)

Health officials in Virginia are warning about an outbreak of meningococcal disease there. The outbreak is statewide and has been going on since June 2022, according to a news release from the Virginia Department of Health.

Meningococcal disease isn't well known, and that raises a lot of questions about what exactly it is and how concerned people should be. Infectious-disease doctors break it down.

What's happening

Since June 2022, there have been 27 cases of meningococcal disease reported in Virginia. The disease, caused by the bacteria Neisseria meningitidis type Y, has been reported in eastern, central and southwest Virginia, although the majority of cases have been reported in the eastern part of the state.

"This development is three times the expected number of cases during this time period," according to the Virginia Department of Health.

Five people in the state have died from complications of the disease. While health officials say the risk to Virginia residents is low, they also note that the strain that's causing the outbreak is "known to be circulating more widely in the United States."

Do I need to worry?

Meningococcal disease is rare, but it's serious. It's usually severe, can be deadly and includes infections of the bloodstream as well as the lining of the brain and spinal cord (known as meningitis), according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

While anyone can get meningococcal disease, infants, teens, young adults and older adults have the highest rates in the U.S., the CDC says. The bacteria spreads when people share respiratory and throat secretions, such as when they cough, kiss or share personal items like toothbrushes, Dr. William Schaffner, an infectious-disease specialist and professor at the Vanderbilt University School of Medicine, tells Yahoo Life.

"What’s concerning is understanding the driving factors," infectious-disease expert Dr. Amesh A. Adalja, senior scholar at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security, tells Yahoo Life. "The cases are all meningococcal serotype Y, which is vaccine-preventable, though some cases occurred in those who likely were too old to be part of routine childhood vaccine against meningococcal disease, and most cases were in unvaccinated adults."

Schaffner calls the outbreak "very unusual," adding, "At the moment, the state's epidemiologists haven't been able to find a common source of this outbreak." Still, he says, "it's of very low risk to the general population."

What can I do about it?

There is a vaccine for meningococcal disease, and health officials in Virginia note that 26 of the 27 people infected with the bacteria were not vaccinated against it. "It’s important to ensure that people who are eligible for vaccination are vaccinated," Adalja says.

There are two types of meningococcal vaccines in the U.S. — meningococcal conjugate (MenACWY) vaccines and serogroup B meningococcal (MenB) vaccines, according to the CDC. (Worth noting: The CDC recommends that all preteens and teens get these vaccines, which protect against types B, C and Y — the strain involved in the Virginia outbreak — of Neisseria meningitidis bacteria.)

"Every parent in Virginia and elsewhere should make sure they and their children are up to date with their meningococcal vaccinations," Schaffner says.

He also recommends knowing the signs of meningococcal disease. Those may include:

  • Fever

  • Headache

  • Stiff neck

  • Nausea

  • Vomiting

  • Sensitivity to light

  • Altered mental status

If someone has a bloodstream infection, the CDC says, they may experience these symptoms:

  • Fever and chills

  • Fatigue

  • Vomiting

  • Cold hands and feet

  • Severe aches or pain in the muscles, joints, chest or abdomen

  • Rapid breathing

  • Diarrhea

  • A dark purple rash (in the later stages)

"People should try to avoid others who are ill and encourage them, if there's anything at all concerning, to immediately seek care," Schaffner says.

The Virginia Department of Health also suggests practicing good hand hygiene and avoiding sharing personal items such as vapes, lipsticks and toothbrushes.

The main takeaway

Doctors say people shouldn't panic over the outbreak, noting that the 27 cases have occurred over the span of more than a year. However, they stress the importance of knowing the symptoms and acting quickly if you or a loved one develops them. "Because meningococcal meningitis is so severe, prompt medical attention should be sought when anyone develops signs or symptoms consistent with meningitis, including fever, headache and neck stiffness," Adalja says.

Schaffner agrees. "This is a potentially very serious infection," he says.