On February 13, Jewelean Pimental, a freshman at Patrick Henry High School died from what was widely reported as a case of meningitis. The next day, 52 year old Jackie Lerma Billings became San Diego’s second meningitis-related death in as many days. With the deaths of these two residents, hot on the heels of twelve combined cases at Princeton University and University of California Santa Barbara, meningitis has acquired a sudden, high-profile interest amongst the community, deserving both answers, and clarification. Though headline reporting has afforded the public with the blanket-term “meningitis,” crucial differences are at play in the recent San Diego scare, which involves meningococcal disease, and bacterial meningitis – two infections containing medical similarities, but also significantly distinct characteristics.

According to County Public Health Officer Wilma Wooten, ‘Meningitis is a technical term that’s given to the inflammation of the lining of the brain and spinal cord.’ Meningococcal disease, responsible for the death of Pimental, is caused by the bacterium Neisseria meningitides, which in addition to the inflammation of brain and spinal cord lining can also result in deadly bloodstream infections. Of the two San Diego infections, Pimental’s is the more disconcerting, due to the contagious nature of the bacteria and its status as the leading cause of meningitis amongst adolescents. The Center for Disease Control states that the bacteria “are spread through the exchange of respiratory and throat secretions like spit (e.g., living in close quarters, kissing),” and that while infection is certainly serious, it can often be treated with antibiotics to prevent severe illness and further distribution following immediate medical attention if suspected.

The San Diego County Health and Human Services Agency has stated that the bacteria responsible for Pimental’s and Billings’ deaths are unrelated, and that San Diego ‘does not have a meningitis outbreak.’ Still, it has now become obvious, meningitis remains a very real and dangerous concern, posing a risk for critical long-term effects and death. For the best prevention, the CDC recommends keeping up-to-date on vaccinations, most importantly for “all people aged 11 through 18 years,” preferably with a first dose at 11 years old , followed by an increasingly significant booster at 16 – a dose now believed to be necessary five years after the first, rather than the previously recommended ten. Similar to the flu vaccine however, the current vaccines for meningococcal disease only prevent the most common strains, an unfortunate fact that may have contributed to the death of Jewelean Pimental. However, as hopeful research and new vaccines indicate, it’s a fact those days of tragedy may be very numbered.