Iowa officials see increase in rare, but deadly meningococcal disease – Des Moines Register

State public health officials say “multiple cases” of meningococcal disease have been detected in Iowa in recent weeks.
The bacterial infection most commonly causes meningitis, or inflammation of the brain and spinal cord, and a bloodstream infection called septicemia. Both of those illnesses are serious, and can quickly turn deadly or cause long-term disabilities.
The Iowa Department of Health and Human Services declined to share the number cases they’ve investigated at this time. Spokesperson Sarah Ekstrand said officials were unable to provide any specific details of these infections due to “the small number of cases.”
Meningococcal disease is rare. One case was detected in 2021 and in 2020, according to the Iowa Department of Health and Human Services. The highest incidence was in 2015, when five cases were detected.
Nationwide, there were about 375 cases of meningococcal disease in 2019, according to the most recent data available from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
There have been no cases reported in Polk County in recent weeks, according Polk County Health Department Spokesperson Madisun VanGundy.
People with the disease, who reported to the state public health department, were isolated until 24 hours after appropriate treatment with an antibiotic, Ekstrand said. Close contacts were also identified and recommended a post-exposure treatment with antibiotics to help prevent them from getting the disease.
“It is important to remember if you receive a call from Polk County Health Department, answer and return our calls so we can protect the health of our community,” VanGundy said.
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State public health officials urged health care providers to be vigilant for this disease, which can appear as influenza-like at first. Symptoms include fever, headache, nausea, vomiting, a stiff neck and a rash.
The bacteria is spread through respiratory and throat secretions, such as saliva. The CDC says it typically takes close or prolonged contact, such as kissing or being close to someone who is coughing, for the bacteria to spread to another person.
Public health officials are also encouraging individuals to stay up-to-date on recommended vaccines to protect themselves against serious illness from meningococcal disease.
There are two types of vaccines in the United States to help protect against the bacteria. A shot is recommended for those aged 11 or 12 years, with a booster dose at age 16. Individuals may also be recommended a booster shot if they are students entering college.
“All eligible Iowans should be up to date on all recommended vaccines,” Ekstrand said. “In addition to vaccination, CDC also recommends maintaining healthy habits, like getting plenty of rest and not having close contact with people that are sick.”
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According the CDC, “symptoms of meningococcal disease can first appear as a flu-like illness and rapidly worsen.”
The CDC also says that fever, headache and stiff neck can also be common symptoms. Nausea, vomiting, sensitivity to light and altered mental status or confusion may also appear.
Rates the disease have been low for about three decades, after spikes in the 1970s and the 1990s. The disease rate began declining in 1995 and have remained low since, the CDC says.
“Anyone can get meningococcal disease, but rates of disease are highest in children younger than 1 year old, followed by a second peak in adolescence,” the public health agency says. “Meningococcal disease is also seasonal: the number of cases generally peaks each year in January, February, and March.”
Michaela Ramm covers health care for the Des Moines Register. She can be reached at, at (319) 339-7354 or on Twitter at @Michaela_Ramm.


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