Evidence points to a contagious bacterial infection, not a viral one, in the occurrence of a mystery illness that has killed at least 12 in Liberia, U.S. health officials have revealed Monday, May 8.

According to authorities, the bacteria can lead to meningitis, a potentially fatal brain infection, along with blood infections.

U.S. Health Investigation

Liberia already reported 31 cases of the mysterious illness, 13 of which led to death. Almost all the victims attended a funeral in southeastern Liberia, so more people are being monitored as the germ is thought to spread via close contact with an infected person.

Since April 24, individuals mostly under age 21 have died as a result of the disease. The symptoms include fever, vomiting, headache, and diarrhea.

From the beginning, the World Health Organization rapid response teams as well as the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and partners have been mobilized to probe the cases.

The CDC, after testing samples from four of the deceased, detected the bacteria Neisseria meningitidis, which is also the culprit for a so-called meningitis belt in sub-Saharan Africa passing close to the West African nation.

Their experts then revealed the results Monday after close coordination with Liberian health authorities.

The bacteria in question is capable of living in the throat and is communicated via kissing and being in close contact with an infected individual.

It remains unclear whether the victims developed meningitis, yet the very bacteria being investigated can lead to rapid death or the mental confusion found in patients of the mysterious outbreak.

Ebola Virus Ruled Out, Food And Drink Poisoning Being Looked At

In its May 3 statement, WHO noted that the sickness remained unexplained even while Ebola and Lassa fever had already been ruled out. While investigation results from U.S. authorities are still pending, WHO spokesperson Tarik Jaserevic told reporters in Geneva that there is a low “overall risk of spread.”

“These findings are indicative of a point source of infection,” Jaserevic said, pointing to a theory involving “food, drink or water poisoning.”

While the disease has entered the country’s capital, WHO and medical charity group Doctors without Borders have lauded the warning system in Liberia — put in place after the Ebola crisis — as instrumental in the prompt action following the deaths.

Liberia is still reeling from memories of the recent Ebola outbreak in West Africa, which started December 2013 and hit the country the hardest. An estimated 29,000 people were infected, one-third of which died from the epidemic.

And even if the disease is already controlled, Ebola survivors remained unprotected from shame and discrimination, as a result of findings that the virus could stay in certain body parts even as the patient already recovered.

But people are quicker to act these days, according to Joanne Liu of Medecins Sans Frontieres, and it’s a positive reaction after Ebola brought horror to the whole nation.

“I think that this sort of reactivity is the legacy of Ebola,” she said.

WHO continues to survey the health landscape worldwide, making it a mission to contain and control infections before they spread.

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