After two publicized deaths in one week, the San Diego County Health and Human Services Agency defined the line between meningitis and meningococcal disease to answer a vital question: should the public be concerned?
On Feb. 13, Patrick Henry High School freshman Jewelean Pimentel, 14, died from what doctors believe was meningococcal disease.
Just the next day, Santee resident Jackie Lerma Billings, 52, became fatally ill from a form of bacterial meningitis.
In an explanation released Thursday, HHSA officials said the bacteria that killed Pimentel and Billings were not related.
“The 14-year-old who died last week is believed to have had meningococcal disease, which posed a potential risk to close contacts of the student,” said County Public Health Officer Wilma Wooten in the release. “The bacterial meningitis identified in the woman is due to a different type of bacteria that did not pose a risk to her close contacts.”
While meningitis and meningococcal disease are related, they are not necessarily the same thing.
Meningitis -- an infection of the tissues around the brain and spinal cord -- can be caused by a number of viruses, bacteria and other organisms, county health officials explained.
The cause of the meningitis determines its severity and how it will be treated. Symptoms include fever, intense headache and stiff neck, nausea, vomiting, sensitivity to light, drowsiness and confusion.
Viral meningitis is common and contagious, but it is rarely serious or fatal and does not require antibiotics.
The more serious meningococcal bacteria are the leading cause of meningitis in adolescents ages 11 to17, and while they’re rare, they can be fatal.
However, meningococcal bacteria can also cause an infection of the bloodstream, which is the disease suspected of killing Pimentel.
In that kind of infection, symptoms include joint pain and a red or purple rash that does not turn white when you put pressure on it – one of Pimentel’s symptoms.
Meningococcal disease is spread through close personal contact, not casual contact, which is why those in close contact with Pimentel were given antibiotics to prevent them from contracting it.
“More than 95 percent of cases of meningococcal disease are sporadic. Very few cases turn into an outbreak,” Wooten said. “San Diego does not have a meningitis outbreak.”
Billings’ death was due to meningitis caused by a different bacteria type unrelated to meningococcal.
As for public concern, health officials said meningococcal disease is not as contagious as the common cold or flu.
The HHSA investigates all possible causes of meningitis, especially to if it's suspected meningococcal disease. They then give antibiotics to those in close contact with the victim if it's a serious case.
Pimentel’s suspected meningococcal disease is the second reported case in the county in 2014 and the first death, health officials say. Three people died and 16 were sickened by meningococcal disease in 2013.
Every year, between 1,000 and 1,200 people get meningococcal disease in the United States, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Ten to 15 percent of those people die, while another 11 to 19 percent lose arms or legs, become deaf, develop nervous system issue or suffer seizures or strokes.
Because it is so dangerous when caught, the officials recommend teens get a vaccine to prevent certain strains.
However, it does not cover all strains; Pimentel’s parents said she died despite getting the vaccination.