Meningitis suspected in Liberia's mystery illness outbreak

Neisseria meningitidis

Neisseria meningitidis bacteria., iLexx / iStock

Test results from samples of four Liberians who are part of an unexplained illness cluster suggests meningitis as a possible cause, apparently shifting suspicious away from point-source contamination of food, drink, or water.

Bernice Dahn, MD, MPH, the country's health minister, announced at a media briefing in Monrovia today that seven specimens from people who died from the disease were positive for Neisseria meningitidis, Reuters reported.

She said that, based on initial results from the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), Liberian health officials believe that the unexplained illness cluster reflects a probable meningitis outbreak in Sinoe County that spread to Montserrado and Grand Bassa counties.

Dahn said public health officials are exploring the possibility of mass vaccination and that more lab tests are under way. She put the outbreak total at 31 cases, 13 of them fatal, which reflects an increase of 3 more cases and 1 more death.

CDC to send experts

A CDC press officer told the Huffington Post today that the CDC is sending two meningitis laboratory scientists and one meningitis senior epidemiologist to Liberia this week to assist with the probe.

The outbreak began in late April in people who had attended the funeral of a religious leader in the Sinoe County city of Greenville, sparking fears of an Ebola recurrence. Early on, however, tests ruled out Ebola, as well as Lassa fever.

According to the CDC, N meningitidis causes illnesses globally, but the highest prevalence is in the "meningitis belt" of sub-Saharan Africa, an area that does not include Liberia.

Symptoms often include fever, headache, stiff neck, and nausea. Patients who have meningococcal sepsis can experience abrupt fever onset and worsening rash.

See also:

May 8 Reuters story

May 8 Huffington Post story

CDC meningococcal disease background information

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