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CDC urges meningococcal disease vaccination ahead of Hajj travel

By Jen Christensen, CNN

 4 minute read 

Updated 6:54 AM EDT, Tue May 21, 2024

The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is urging doctors to be on the lookout for potentially deadly meningococcal disease linked to travel to Saudi Arabia.

Since April, there have been 12 confirmed cases of meningococcal disease associated with travel for Umrah, an Islamic pilgrimage to Mecca, the birthplace of the Prophet Muhammad in Saudi Arabia. Believers in the Muslim faith make Umrah trips to Mecca throughout the year to receive blessings. Muslims also make a longer, more ritualized pilgrimage to Mecca at least once in their lifetime during a set time of year called Hajj. This year’s Hajj is June 14 to 19.

Five of the pilgrims who got sick this year live in the United States. France has had four cases, and the United Kingdom has had three. Ten of the people who got sick had been to Mecca, and two had a close association with someone who did.

Meningococcal disease is highly contagious among unvaccinated people. Of the patients whose vaccination status is known, nine were unvaccinated.

Meningococcal disease, including meningitis, is an uncommon illness caused by the bacteria Neisseria meningitidis. It can cause infection in the lining of the brain and spinal cord that can cause a lifetime of medical problems such as memory and concentration issues, seizures, balance problems, hearing loss and blindness. The disease can also lead to a serious blood infection called septicemia or blood poisoning.

Research shows that an estimated 10% to 15% of cases end in death, even with appropriate treatment.

The number of cases in the US has been on the rise, according to the CDC. This year, 143 cases were reported as of the end of March, compared with 81 for the same period last year. There were 422 cases in all of 2023, the most since 2014, according to the CDC.

Meningococcal disease can be treated with antibiotics if it’s caught early enough. However, diagnosis is often delayed because the symptoms can mimic those of other infectious diseases like Covid-19 or the flu. Symptoms include fever, a headache, nausea or vomiting, trouble walking, a stiff neck, a skin rash, sensitivity to light and brain fog.

Tests of the bacteria in the newly confirmed cases showed that in one case in the US and one in France, it was resistant to ciprofloxacin, one of the first-line antibiotics used to treat meningococcal disease. Eight cases responded to treatment with penicillin or ciprofloxacin.

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