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Meningococcal disease cases surge in L.A. County, resulting in two deaths

April 20, 2011 |  6:00 am

A serious bacterial illness has killed two people in Los Angeles County in the last month, including a child, and sickened five others, the county’s top public health official said Tuesday.

Dr. Jonathan Fielding, director of the county Department of Public Health, urged the public to vaccinate against the bacterial disease, known as meningococcal (pronounced muh-nin-jo-cok-ul) disease.

The illness can cause meningitis, which is a swelling of the membranes covering the brain and spinal cord, or can cause the blood to become infected. It can be fatal in 10% to 20% of cases.

“It’s a serious infection.... It can be life-threatening,” Fielding said.

Last year, L.A. County saw fewer than two cases of meningococcal disease a month, but there were seven cases reported in the county between mid-March and mid-April.

Meningococcal disease can cause high fever, headache, stiff neck, nausea, vomiting, skin rash and aversion to bright lights. It can’t be spread by breathing the same air as an ill person, such as the flu or the common cold can be. But the bacteria can be transmitted by close contact with someone’s saliva, such as through kissing, coughing or sneezing.

The disease is known for spreading quickly in college dormitories, and officials say college students are a population that should especially be vaccinated against the disease.

All 11- and 12-year-olds should receive the meningococcal conjugate vaccine, followed up by a booster shot between the ages of 16 and 18. Fewer than half of adolescents are immunized against this disease. Through the adolescent and teenage years, risk of infection with meningococcal disease increases.

The meningococcal conjugate vaccine is a relatively new vaccine, licensed for use in 2005. It can protect against two of the three most common types of meningococcal disease in the United States. If the disease is identified early, antibiotics can be used to treat it.

Anyone who falls ill with bacterial meningitis needs to be treated as early as possible, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. A diagnosis can be made by growing bacteria from fluid collected from the spine, which is important to obtain to identify which antibiotics will be effective.

Fielding suggested that when children receive the meningococcal vaccine, they also receive the Tdap vaccine, which protects against tetanus, diphtheria and pertussis, also known as whooping cough.

Beginning July 1, California state law will require seventh through 12th graders to receive the Tdap vaccine before entering school in September.

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-- Rong-Gong Lin II at the Los Angeles County Hall of Administration

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