Four of the 13 persons who died of a mysterious illness in Sinoe County on April 23 have tested positive for Neisseria meningitidis serogroup C, a bacterial form of meningitis, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
The CDC is based in Atlanta, Georgia in the United States.
Dr. Francis Kateh, deputy health minister and chief medical officer, has confirmed the report from the CDC.
Additional testing is ongoing to determine if the other deaths and 30 other illnesses in Sinoe County, Grand Bassa County and the capital Monrovia following the wake and funeral of a religious leader in Sinoe County are also due to this type of infection.
The CDC said meningitis can spread by respiratory excretions and saliva. Drs. Kateh and Alex Gasasira, the World Health Organization’s representative in Liberia, said on Saturday that tea served at a wake and funeral of a religious leader is suspected in an accidental “poisoning incident.”
Those who attended the wake and funeral had a higher likelihood of falling ill if they drank the tea and reported it tasted different than it should have.
Only 1 of the 30 who got ill and survived was still hospitalized as of Saturday.
Patients suffered abdominal pain, vomiting, weakness, headache and mental confusion. Dr. Gasasira said some of the patients had a hard time breathing and others foamed at the mouth. According to Dr. Kateh, an unusual rash called petechiae developed around the feet and wrists of those who have recovered.
The CDC said it is sending two meningitis laboratory scientists and one meningitis senior epidemiologist to Liberia this week to join the staff from the CDC Country Office in Monrovia in the investigation.
On Saturday, Dr. Kateh said this infection appears to be localized to those that attended the funeral and wake and one close contact.
According to the CDC website, bacterial meningitis is very serious and can be deadly. Death can occur in as little as a few hours. Most people recover from meningitis. However, permanent disabilities (such as brain damage, hearing loss, and learning disabilities) can result from the infection. Neisseria meningitidis, the kind suspected in the Sinoe deaths, rarely occurs in newborns, but is more prone to attack children, youth, young adults and older people.
People spread Neisseria meningitidis by sharing respiratory or throat secretions (saliva or spit). This typically occurs during close (coughing or kissing) or lengthy (living in the same household) contact.
Meningitis symptoms include sudden onset of fever, headache, and stiff neck. There are often other symptoms, such as
• Photophobia (increased sensitivity to light)
• Altered mental status (confusion)
If a doctor thinks you have meningitis, they will collect samples of blood or cerebrospinal fluid (fluid near the spinal cord). A laboratory will test the samples to see what is causing the infection. It is important to know the specific cause of meningitis so the doctors know how to treat it.
Doctors treat bacterial meningitis with a number of antibiotics. It is important to start treatment as soon as possible.