A Maryland Transit Administration bus driver has died of a blood infection caused by the bacteria that also causes meningitis, health officials said Wednesday, but they played down the public health risk.
City and state health officials say the worker's death Tuesday of meningococcal sepsis, or shock from infection, at Union Memorial Hospital is not cause for alarm among the MTA's bus and rail riders. The bacteria is not casually transmitted, and the risk to the public is low, they said.
As a precaution, the 46-year-old worker's family and close associates will be treated with antibiotics, though the risk to them does not appear to be high either, the officials said. They said he worked out of the MTA's Kirk Avenue bus yards.
"At least over the last 10 years, [the state Department of Health and Mental Hygiene] has not identified any cases of meningococcal disease among household members or close contacts of a person with meningococcal disease," said Dr. David Blythe, a state epidemiologist.
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says at least 10 percent of the population carries the bacteria but few develop disease. It's spread through a person's saliva and droplets from the nose and mouth through kissing and sharing drinks and utensils. There's no airborne transmission, according to the CDC.
In about half of the cases of disease, the illness manifests as meningitis, an infection of the membrane covering the brain and spinal cord. In up to 30 percent of the cases, including the transit worker's, it develops into a blood infection.
With those blood infections, there is an abrupt onset of fever and rash. There also is often a drop in blood pressure, ruptured blood vessels and organ failure. There is not the neck stiffness often seen with meningitis.
The health officials have met with workers at the Kirk Avenue yards to offer information and discuss concerns. The employees will also be offered grief counseling.
The blood infections are not common in Maryland, with nine cases in 2010 and 12 in 2009, according to state health records.