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Life-threatening meningococcal disease on the rise

4/18/2011, 5 p.m.

LOS ANGELES, Calif.--The county's top public health officer warned today that cases of meningococcal disease are on the rise in Los Angeles and urged several at-risk groups to get vaccinations.

Seven cases of the life-threatening illness, which can cause meningitis and blood infections, have been reported since mid-March.

"The increase in cases of meningococcal disease in such a short period of time is higher than expected,'' said Dr. Jonathan Fielding, director of the Department of Public Health. "Last year, there were a total of 21 such cases.''

The department is monitoring the cases and working with those infected to limit the spread of the bacterial disease of the bloodstream or meninges, the lining covering the brain.

Fielding said that a vaccine can prevent two of the three most common types of the disease found in the U.S.

"Also, meningococcal disease can be treated with appropriate antibiotics if caught early,'' he added.

The disease is spread by close contact with an infected person's saliva or other secretions, not through casual contact or simply breathing the same air. Symptoms include high fever, headache, stiff neck, nausea, vomiting, skin rash and aversion to bright lights.

Fielding recommended vaccinations for several groups:
* All 11 and 12-year-olds with a booster between the ages of 16 and 18;
* Children at high-risk for the disease between 2 and 10 years old, including those that travel to countries where meningococcal meningitis is epidemic;
* Young adults living in a college dormitory;
* Adults with compromised immune systems;
* Microbiologists routinely exposed to the bacteria that carries the disease;
* Military recruits; and
* Those traveling to countries where the disease is common.

Less than half of 11 and 12-year-old children are vaccinated, according to Fielding.

The disease has intermittently reached epidemic levels in Africa and is prevalent in other areas of the developing world, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. In 2002, 13,000 people were struck and 1,500 were killed by a strain of meningococcal disease.

For more information about meningococcal disease, follow this link to the CDC.