Highly contagious bacterial meningitis kills 1 in V.I.

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ST. THOMAS - The V.I. Health Department is withholding critical information about the recent death of a person in the Virgin Islands who contracted meningococcal meningitis, a highly contagious bacterial infection.

The department issued a statement Thursday warning residents about a death from a confirmed case of the bacteria that causes meningitis.

"The disease is highly contagious, spreading among people in close or prolonged contact. This is why it was of utmost importance to ensure that household contacts and persons who have had intimate contact with the infected person receive antibiotics to prevent them from getting sick and to prevent an outbreak," Health Commissioner Darice Plaskett said in the prepared statement.

However, citing concerns for the family of the person who died, the department is refusing to reveal where and on which island the person lived, the person's age and gender, who the person may have come into contact with, whether the person is a resident or a visitor and whether there were any extenuating circumstances that may have contributed to the person's death.

Despite the Health Department's advisory about the highly contagious disease, the public has no way of knowing where the person had been prior to their death or in what activities he or she had engaged prior to their death.

"The people that needed to be treated were treated," said Marc Jerome, medical director for the Health Department.

However, the department also is cautioning local health care professionals to be on the lookout for patients with symptoms that are indicative of meningococcal meningitis, more commonly referred to as meningitis.

The Health Department gave the family of the deceased person antibiotics to ensure that, if infected, the family does not infect anyone else, according to spokeswoman Astia LeBron. The department is taking every measure to remain "extremely confidential" about the case, she said.

"This is a small community," LeBron said. "The family and the people involved are worried because they don't want the stigma."

The Health Department is not categorizing the case as an outbreak, according to Dr. Tai Hunte, the territory's infectious disease physician.

"Sometimes having just two cases of the same strain can meet the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention definition of an outbreak," Hunte said in the prepared statement.

As of Thursday, the department had not reported the case to the CDC, according to CDC spokesman Jason McDonald.

The territory has not reported a case in several years, according to McDonald.

According to Jerome, the territory may not have had a case of meningitis in more than 17 years.

Meningococcal meningitis is caused by a bacteria called Neisseria meningitidis, also known as meningococcus, according to the CDC. It infects the brain and spinal cord, leading to symptoms such as a high fever, headache and a stiff neck.

The bacteria are spread through the exchange of respiratory and throat secretions through actions such as kissing, coughing and sneezing.

The bacteria are not spread by casual contact or by simply breathing the air where a person with the disease has been, according to the CDC.

However, the Neisseria meningitidis bacteria can spread to people who have had close or lengthy contact with a patient with meningococcal meningitis.

Symptoms can appear two to 10 days after infection, most often within three to four days. The most serious cases result in death.

In the United States, about 4,100 cases of bacterial meningitis, including 500 deaths, occurred between 2003 and 2007, McDonald said.

The bacteria also can cause other severe illnesses, such as bloodstream infections, the CDC reported on its website.

The disease can be treated with antibiotics that prevent severe illness, if taken soon enough. Antibiotics can also reduce the contagiousness, according to Jerome.

Keeping up to date with recommended vaccines is the best defense against the disease, especially for infants and youths, who are considered the most vulnerable to meningitis, the CDC reported.

Adults are less vulnerable, and about 10 percent of people carry the bacteria, though they show no symptoms of it.

- Contact Jenny Kane at 714-9102 or email jkane@dailynews.vi.

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