In the aftermath of the recent surge in meningitis cases so far this year, most notably two Austin area teens that have died since March 6, city health officials have been conducting vaccinations at West Side public schools and Chicago Park District locations.

On April 15, the disease claimed the lives of an 18-year-old man, and on March 6, a 15-year-old girl. The girl was a sophomore at North Lawndale College Preparatory High School, but no information has been released about the man. Both were Austin area residents.

“They did know each other but it is believed that they did not infect each other,” said Tim Hadac, director of public information for the Chicago Department of Public Health (CDPH). Department representatives held two meningitis vaccinations on April 25 and 28 at the North Lawndale College Preparatory High School, 1616 S. Spaulding Ave.

Last Saturday, the Chicago Health Department conducted separate, 8-hour mobile vaccination clinics at Columbus and Douglas parks. Children ages 11 through 18 received free shots during the event, with 278 vaccinated at Columbus and 153 vaccinated at Douglas.

The vaccination, health officials note, is a one-time shot that allows recipients years of immunity from meningococcal diseases.

“We managed to vaccinate 182 students during the [April 25] event,” said Julie Morita, medical director of the health department’s immunization program. “That is a terrific total considering the fact that students 17 and under needed signed consent forms from their parents to participate. The school distributed the forms on Wednesday, and by Friday, many of the students were prepared for vaccinations.”

According to the city department of health, from 2004 to 2006 there were only a total of six cases of meningitis in Chicago. But last year alone saw twice as many cases compared to that three-year stretch. So far this year, the number of reported cases has reached 10.

“The scary thing about bacterial meningitis is that it really attacks without warning and the symptoms are similar to those of a common cold,” said Hadac. “One may exhibit stiffness in the neck, diarrhea, vomiting or fatigue. They may not know what is happening to them until it is already too far-gone.”

Bacterial meningitis, according to Hadac, can spread through basic human contact, even if the contact is not direct person-to-person.

“It is largely transmitted through the exchange of saliva,” he said. “So if a girl that holds the virus sips from a can of soda and shares that can of soda with a friend and then that friend goes back and has contact with a third person, that third person could get infected, even if the second person is not.”

Department officials say that a pattern for those infected with the disease has yet to be established since there are still too few cases to study. Sill, parents are encouraged to dial 311 for the nearest health care facility conducting vaccinations.

“We know that seven of the victims were African-American, one was Hispanic, and two were white,” Hadac said, “but there was no definite trait that connected them, which is why we are encouraging all parents to take advantage of programs like these and get their children and themselves vaccinated.”

Identifying and preventing meningitis

n What is meningitis? Meningitis is an infection of the coverings around the brain and spinal cord. The infection occurs most often in children, teens, and young adults. Also at risk are older adults and people who have long-term health problems, such as a weakened immune system.

The two main kinds of meningitis are: viral meningitis, which is fairly common and usually does not cause serious illness. In severe cases, it can cause prolonged fever and seizures. The other kind is bacterial meningitis, though not as common but very serious, requiring immediate treatment to prevent brain damage and death.

n What causes meningitis? Viral meningitis is caused by viruses while bacterial meningitis is caused by bacteria. Meningitis can also be caused by other organisms and some medicines, but this is rare. Meningitis is contagious as germs that cause it can be passed from one person to another through coughing and sneezing and through close contact.

n What are the symptoms? The most common symptoms among teens and young adults are a stiff and painful neck, especially when trying to touch the chin or chest. Other symptoms include: fever, headache, vomiting and seizures.

n Can meningitis be prevented? The best way to protect children from meningitis is to make sure he or she gets all their standard immunizations, including shots for measles, chickenpox and Haemophilus influenzae.

Information courtesy of Yahoo Health