A recent outbreak of meningococcal disease in northern Oklahoma has parents and others wondering about how to protect themselves and their family members from meningitis.


A recent outbreak of meningococcal disease in northern Oklahoma has parents and others wondering about how to protect themselves and their family members from meningitis.

Two children from the Oologah-Talala area died and five others were hospitalized earlier this month after contracting the disease. Other forms of meningitis are more common and less deadly, and Carter County Health Department Administrative Director Mendy Spohn said there have been no reported cases of meningitis in this area recently.

Meningitis is a potentially severe or fatal disease caused by a bacteria, virus or fungi causing inflammation of the tissues that cover the brain and spinal cord. Viral meningitis is the most common form of the disease and can be caused by several different viruses.  Approximately 90 percent of meningitis cases are of the viral type. There is no specific treatment for viral meningitis and most patients will completely recover on their own with bed rest and plenty of fluids.

Health care providers often will recommend medicine to relieve symptoms such as fever and headache.

Bacterial meningitis can be caused by bacteria such as Streptococcus species or Neisseria meningitidis, which are spread by direct contact with saliva or respiratory fluids from the nose and throat of an infected person. Bacterial meningitis is usually more severe and requires prompt treatment with antibiotics.

Bacterial meningitis starts much like a stomach bug or the flu. But it can quickly lead to death — one of the few infections in the U.S. where someone can feel fine in the morning and be dead by night. And it’s prime targets are tweens, teens and college freshmen.

Meningococcal disease is a potentially severe or fatal disease caused by the bacteria Neisseria meningitidis. The disease is rare, and not all people who become infected with the bacteria get sick. Those who are infected carry the bacteria in their nose or throat. At any one time, approximately 10 to 15 percent of the population will carry the bacteria but never experience any illness. And less than 1 percent of all infected people will ever develop symptoms. But about 15 percent of the people who catch this fast-moving germ die — and one in five of the survivors suffer permanent disabilities including brain damage, deafness or amputated limbs.

State Health Department spokesperson Leslea Bennett-Webb said 16 cases of meningococcal disease were reported in Oklahoma during 2009 with one death.

In cases of severe illness, meningitis can be confirmed through laboratory tests performed on spinal fluid. Hand washing is the single most important action to prevent the spread of infection. Wash visibly soiled hands with soap and water, after using the toilet, after changing diapers, after sneezing or coughing into your hands and before preparing and eating food. Use alcohol-based hand gels when hands are not visibly soiled.

The federal government recommends that children and adolescents ages 11 to 18 get vaccinated against meningococcal meningitis. Others who should be vaccinated include military recruits and anyone who has an immune system disorder. Oklahoma college freshmen who will live on campus are required to be immunized against meningitis as well as measles, mumps, rubella and hepatitis B. Babies and older adults are offered vaccine against two other bacterial types. The vaccines are covered by most insurance and protect against four of the five strains of meningococcal infections.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.