NYC Health Department warns of rising bacterial illnesses, meningitis risk

The NYC Health Department and U.S. health officials are warning doctors that meningitis cases are on the rise. So far this year, there have been 11 cases in the five boroughs, including one death.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued an alert to U.S. doctors on Thursday about an increase in cases of one type of invasive meningococcal disease, most of it due to a specific strain of bacteria.

The NYC Health Department told FOX 5 NY the annual case counts in New York City have gradually increased over the last three years, rising from 15 in 2021 to 28 the previous year, with a mortality rate of approximately 7% during that timeframe. 

"Bacterial meningitis, what's been going on here, is a pretty dangerous thing, 10-15% of people who get it, even if they get the correct treatment, can still die," Dr. Jacob Khurgin said.

Dr. Khurgin said another 10%, on top of that, will get some long-term issue like amputated limbs. "It's not a benign disease, it's a pretty scary thing," Khurgin said. 

This 1966 microscope photo shows five colonies of Group-B Neisseria meningitidis bacteria. On Thursday, March 28, 2024, the CDC issued an alert to U.S. doctors about an increase in cases of one type of invasive meningococcal disease, mostly due to th (AP Images)

Last year, 422 cases of it were reported in the U.S. — the most in a year since 2014. Already, 143 cases have been reported this year, meaning infections appear to be on track to surpass 2023, the CDC said. Most of the cases last year did not involve meningitis, though at least 17 died. The cases were disproportionately more common in adults ages 30 to 60, in Black people and in people who have HIV, the CDC said.

The bacteria can cause a dangerous brain and spinal cord inflammation called meningitis, with symptoms that may include fever, headache, stiff neck, nausea and vomiting. The bacteria can also cause a bloodstream infection with symptoms like chills, fatigue, cold hands and feet, rapid breathing, diarrhea, or, in later stages, a dark purple rash.

The infection can be treated with antibiotics, but quick treatment is essential. An estimated 10% to 15% of infected people die, and survivors sometimes suffer deafness or amputations.

There also are vaccines against meningococcal disease.

Officials recommend that all children should get a meningococcal conjugate vaccine, which protects against the rising strain, at around the time they enter middle school. Since vaccine protection fades, the CDC also recommends a booster dose at age 16. Shots are also recommended for people at higher risk, like those in a place where an outbreak is occurring or those with HIV infection or certain other health conditions.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.