The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has been alerted about a Los Angeles County case of meningococcal infection, a bacteria-caused illness that can lead to potentially deadly meningitis, according to a spokesperson.
Public health officials take such cases very seriously because they involve a “potentially devastating” disease, said Dr. Thomas Clark, a CDC medical epidemiologist and meningitis expert.
“They really are a medical emergency and a public health emergency,” he said.
Meningitis outbreaks are rare but a concern because they can have a high percentage of fatalities.
Dr. Jonathan Fielding, director of the County Department of Public Health, said Thursday this was a "very serious" case but was unsure of the patient's ultimate condition.
"Whether this is an outbreak, single case, whatever, we don't know at this point," Fielding said.
Fielding said several tests will be done to determine the particular imprint of this strain, which is not a new one.
There are "apparently some similarities" to an especially deadly strain found recently in New York that has resulted in 22 cases, including seven fatalities since 2010. "But it's not identical," Fielding said, and more tests need to be done to see if they are related at all.
The outbreak in New York City involved a strain "circulating among men who have sex with men (MSM) and may be transmitted during intimate encounters, including sex. Why certain people become ill as opposed to others is not fully understood," according to officials with the NYC Department of Health and Mental Hygiene.
"Typically, in meningitis outbreaks, about 1 out of 5 people die. With this outbreak among MSM, we're seeing about 1 out of 3 people die," the officials said in an email.
Clark, the CDC epidemiologist, said outbreaks in one place have not been clearly linked to outbreaks elsewhere in the country. Nevertheless, he said, "we are going to be vigilant looking for additional cases."
Bacterial meningitis is a respiratory disease that can be treated with antibiotics if identified quickly. Symptoms include a sudden onset fever, severe headache and increased sensitivity to light.
People who are in very close contact with somebody who has meningitis are at higher risk of contracting the disease because it can be spread by kissing or coughing, though it is not as contagious as the common cold.
There is a vaccine available but it is currently only recommended for certain populations, including adolescents.
Dr. Gil Chavez of the state Department of Public Health said the number of reported cases of meningococcal infection have been decreasing over the last few years, but it still remains a concern.
There were 183 cases across the state in 2007 compared to 88 in 2012.
"About 30% are usually from L.A. County," Chavez said.
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