Infectious diseases expert explains CDC alert involving rare, serious infection

April 03, 2024
Blue blobs on a black background with the words Neisseria meningitidis.
xyzzy. Illustration by Dan Higgins

Infectious diseases specialist Scott Curry, M.D., has only seen one case of invasive meningococcal disease. But it’s seared in his memory. The victim was a college athlete.

“I saw him toward the end of his illness when he was heading toward rehab. He lost most of his fingers and all of his toes because he got meningococcal sepsis and was flat out sick in an ICU for a solid month before he finally came out. And he was on vasopressors to keep his blood pressure up.”

The student survived, but his life was irrevocably changed. 

Scott Curry, M.D. 
Dr. Scott Curry

So when the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued a health advisory about an increase in invasive meningococcal disease, Curry understood the rationale. “I think the real gist of their alert is this is still around; it's still worth getting the vaccine for it,” he said.

The CDC’s focus is on a specific strain called Neisseria meningitidis serogroup Y. Last year, the United States saw its highest reported number of cases since 2014. And 2024 is on track to possibly top that. As of March 25, 143 cases were reported to the CDC, an increase of 62 cases reported by that date in 2023. 

Curry, an Infectious Diseases faculty member at the Medical University of South Carolina and an assistant hospital epidemiologist at MUSC Health, said outbreaks have occurred on college campuses in the past. The infection spreads through close contact, such as sharing spoons or kissing.

“So any young person who calls up to a physician's office and says that they had a headache, you've got some follow-up questions to ask. You know, have you got a fever? Is your neck stiff? Are you feeling out of it? Has anybody seen you being delirious? If the answer to any of the questions is yes, you need to go to the ER right now because this could kill you in a matter of hours. This is not something you sit there and struggle with.”

The CDC says cases caused by the current strain of concern, serogroup Y, are disproportionately showing up in:

  • People ages 30 to 60.
  • Black or African American people.
  • People with HIV.

And to make things more complicated, the CDC says some of the patients are showing up with bloodstream infection or septic arthritis without typical symptoms of meningitis, such as a headache or stiff neck.

But Curry said vaccination can prevent the illness. The CDC recommends that 11 to 12-year-olds get a vaccine that protects against four types of bacteria linked to meningitis. They need a booster dose at age 16. For people who are at a higher risk of infection, because of medical conditions such as HIV, the CDC recommends boosters every five years if they remain in high-risk groups.

“The vaccine is really pitched at healthy young people because they're the ones least likely to get vaccinated. This is something where an illness that causes a high degree of fatality and deafness and other bad morbidity could be completely prevented by the vaccine itself. So that's why they're kind of pushing hard on it, even though it's still pretty rare,” Curry said.

“Side effects of the vaccine are virtually nil. This is at worst a sore arm. This is a very, very benign vaccine and insurance pays for it.”

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