RICHMOND, Va. (WJHL) – The Virginia Department of Health (VDH) has announced a statewide breakout of the “rare but serious illness” meningococcal disease.

On Wednesday, the VDH reported 27 cases of the disease had been reported in Eastern, Central and Southwest Virginia since June 2022, which the department said is three times the expected number of cases.

According to the VDH announcement, five patients have died due to complications from the disease, which is caused by a bacteria known as Neisseria meningitidis type Y. Symptoms of the disease can appear flu-like early and can quickly become severe. Symptoms include fever, chills, headache, stiff neck, vomiting, sensitivity to bright lights and possible rashes.

Meningococcal disease is treatable with antibiotics but should be addressed early, the VDH reports.

The department reported the bulk of the cases have occurred in Eastern Virginia as of Wednesday. The disease is spread through long or close contact via respiratory exchange and throat secretions. The VDH said methods of transmitting the disease can include kissing, coughing, direct sneezing and the sharing of items like cups, bottles, utensils and cigarettes.

The VDH recommended people practice good hygiene and not share personal items, as well as avoid contact with sick individuals.

Anyone who experiences the symptoms of meningococcal disease is advised to seek care immediately. Parents are also reminded to get their adolescent or teenage children vaccinated against the disease at age 11 or 12 and receive a booster dose at 15 or 16. The health department reported that of the 27 cases since June 2022, 26 were not vaccinated for the bacteria.

The disease rarely leads to serious forms of illness like meningitis or septicemia, but VDH stressed the importance of seeking treatment early if contraction is suspected.