An invasive meningococcal disease – which can be deadly to infected people – is on the rise, the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) warned.

In an alert issued on Thursday, the CDC warned that there were 422 cases of the disease reported in the US last year, the highest annual number of cases reported since 2014.

The disease, which stems from the bacterium Neisseria meningitidis, is a rare but severe illness with a fatality rate of 10-15%, even with appropriate antibiotic treatment, according to the CDC.

With meningococcal disease typically presenting itself as meningitis, symptoms often include fever, headache, stiff neck, nausea, vomiting and photophobia. The disease could also present itself as meningococcal bloodstream infections with symptoms including fever, chills, fatigue, vomiting, cold hands and feet, severe aches and pains, rapid breathing or dark purple rashes in later stages.

The CDC warned that although initial symptoms of the disease can be non-specific, they worsen rapidly and the disease can become life-threatening within hours. Those who survive may experience long-term effects such as deafness or amputation.

As of 25 March, 143 cases have been reported to the CDC since the start of this year. That marked an increase of 62 cases over the 81 that were reported at the same time last year.

Among the six meningococcal bacteria groups worldwide which include A, B, C, W, X and Y, the four that circulate across the US are B, C, W and Y. Currently, vaccines against A, C, W, Y and B are available in the US.

According to the CDC, cases of the disease have been disproportionately occurring among 30- to 60-year-olds, Black people and people with HIV. Of 94 patients with known outcomes, a total of 17 died, marking an 18% fatality rate that is higher than the historical one of 11% from 2017 to 2021.

The bacteria are typically spread among people who share respiratory and throat secretions through coughing, kissing or lengthy contact, the CDC warned. It added that people do not catch the bacteria through casual contact or by breathing air where someone with the disease has been.

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In its alert, the CDC warned that healthcare providers should have a heightened suspicion for the disease, particularly among populations disproportionately affected by the increase. It also urged healthcare providers to be aware that patients may present without symptoms typical of meningitis and ensure that all people recommended for meningococcal vaccination – including people with HIV – are up to date with their vaccines.

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