Meningococcal disease outbreak in Okla. kills 2 children

OOLOGAH, Okla. — In the wake of an outbreak of meningococcal disease at Oologah-Talala Public Schools, state and local health officials offered free vaccinations to the school system's students and staff, according to the Tulsa World.

Under federal guidelines, free vaccinations are offered to those within the site of an outbreak.

Two of the community's youngest members — 7-year-old Andrew Gregory Thomas and 8-year-old Shuache Moua — died from meningococcal disease March 11.

Five other children were hospitalized with the illness at Children's Hospital at St. Francis. Only 6-year-old Jeremiah Mitchell remained in critical condition there on March 20.

Meningococcal disease outbreaks have been called one of the most feared public health emergencies because the disease strikes seemingly at random and kills one in 10 people within hours.

It starts with the microorganism called the Neisseria meningitidis bacteria. It is so small that it must be grown in cultures — a two- to three-day process — before microbiologists can identify it with microscopes.

About 10 percent of people carry the bacteria in the nose and throat without being sick or showing symptoms, said Dr. Kristy Bradley, the state epidemiologist at the Oklahoma State Department of Health.

Only 1 percent of individuals exposed to the bacteria develop an invasive disease, which can be a bloodstream infection or meningitis, she said. Only 2,000 cases of the disease appear in the U.S. each year.

The Oologah-Talala meningococcal disease is serotype C — a strain that is covered by the meningococcal vaccine, Bradley said.

Meningococcemia is an acute and life-threatening infection of the bloodstream that commonly leads to inflammation of blood vessels.

Meningitis is an inflammation of the membranes that cover the brain and spinal cord. Even when treated with antibiotics, up to 15 percent of those who contract the disease die.

Another 11 to 19 percent lose their arms or legs, become deaf, have nervous system problems, experience mental retardation or suffer seizures and strokes.

The meningococcal vaccine, Menactra, is approved for ages 2 to 55 and is recommended for children ages 11 to 18, she said. Only high-risk children ages 2 to 10 can get the vaccine through public health departments.

Menactra is the most commonly used vaccine, although the U.S. Food and Drug Administration have just approved Menveo. However, that vaccine is approved only for people who are 11 and older.

Another type of vaccine, called Menomune, has been around since the 1970s. But Menactra has proven more effective and longer-lasting, according to the national Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

"We certainly do think the vaccine is a very important part of preventing this disease," Bradley said.