CHAPEL HILL – A 5-year-old child died Wednesday in Durham due to a probable case of bacterial meningitis, according to health officials. The disease is rare and can be deadly if not caught early.

A spokesman for the Durham County Department of Public Health told multiple news outlets that the case was under investigation. Nine classmates of the infected child, who attend Mount Zion Christian Academy, were being treated with preventive antibiotics.

Susan Rankin, the communicable disease coordinator for Orange County Health Department, explained that meningitis is a disease caused by the inflammation of the protective membranes covering the brain and spinal cord, known as the meninges.

“The most common is viral meningitis, which is caused by a virus. [Another type is] bacterial which can be cause by several different types of bacteria,” Rankin said.

Meningitis may develop in response to a number of causes, usually bacteria or viruses, but can also be caused by physical injury, cancer, or certain drugs, according to the Center for Disease Control.

Rankin said that bacterial meningitis is not an airborne illness and is not spread through casual contact.

“It is transmitted in secretions such as saliva or nasal secretions, like when people have a runny nose—you’ll be infected through contact like that.”

The average onset of bacterial meningitis is three to seven days, though it depends on what kind of bacteria caused it. Symptoms include fever, headache, a stiff neck and trouble thinking.

“A parent should take their child to the doctor if they are demonstrating any of those symptoms and let the doctor know that they were in contact to meningitis,” Rankin said.

Rankin said that the last case of bacterial meningitis reported in OrangeCounty occurred sometime in mid 2000’s.

“In the United States, about 4,100 people a year become sick with some sort of bacterial meningitis, and that is across the whole United States. There are about 500 deaths per year.”

Several childhood vaccines prevent variations of bacterial meningitis.

The severity of the illness and the treatment for meningitis differ depending on the cause. That’s why it is important to target the specific cause of meningitis.