Orange County Schools Warned About Potentially Fatal Bacterial Infection

The family of a girl who lost four limbs to the disease is advocating for awareness about a vaccine

Orange County public health officials are warning parents of students traveling to Tijuana about an outbreak of a deadly bacterial infection in the Mexican city.

Reports of meningococcal infections in Tijuana started in January, according to a letter sent out last week by the Orange County Health Care Agency. San Diego County schools were also warned.

The March 22 letter stated that no cases from the bacterial strain that causes the infections had been identified in the county, but had been elsewhere in California.

At least 18 cases of meningococcal disease have been reported in Tijuana since Jan. 4, and five people have died, according to the Orange County Health Care Agency's Dr. Matt Zahn.

"There are no changes in recommendations on travel to Tijuana or Mexico," the letter from the agency (PDF) stated. "But individuals traveling there should be aware of the recent reports of meningococcal disease and should promptly seek care for suggestive symptoms."

The disease can have severe health impacts and can progress quickly from flu-like symptoms, rashes and a stiff neck, so health officials say early diagnosis and treatment are crucial.

"It is an illness that we take very seriously because people will have flu-like illness that looks like a virus and not a whole lot more," said Dr. Matt Zahn, medical director of epidemiology for the agency. "Then within hours, they can get seriously ill."

The family of a girl who was diagnosed in February with Meningocococcemia and had six surgeries – and all four limbs amputated – is also advocating for awareness about a vaccine that can prevent the disease.

Kaitlyn Dobrow, 18, came down with symptoms abruptly and was admitted into the emergency room at UC Irvine Medical Center, where her condition worsened, according to a fundraiser page set up by her mother Kathi Dobrow.

"She came and told me that her head hurt very badly, her whole body was killing her, and I thought she had the flu," Kathi Dobrow said. "Once she got to the emergency room, they suspected that it was what it was, and hoping what it wasn't."

Dr. Nicole Bernal with the UCI Regional Burn Center said the infection causes blood flow going to toes and fingers to be cut off.

Kathi Dobrow told the OC Register she believes Kaitlyn, who was hit by a different strain of bacteria than that present in the Tijuana cases, had missed her meningococcal vaccinations.

"I had absolutely no idea how serious this could be," Kathi Dobrow told the newspaper. "If I had known, both our kids would have been vaccinated the minute we heard the vaccine was available."

The bacteria -- Neisseria meningitidis -- that causes the bloodstream infection afflicting Kaitlyn also causes meningococcal meningitis, an inflammation of tissue around the brain and spinal cord, according to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Infections from the bacteria can be spread from person to person through respiratory and throat secretions and are common in close quarters -- such as military barracks and college dormitories -- according to the CDC website. Person-to-person contact must be close – such as kissing or sharing food – for the bacteria to spread.

Those who have been in close contact with a patient with meningococcal disease should be treated with antibiotics to prevent the illness from progressing, according to the CDC.

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