Outbreaks of meningococcal disease in Florida have led to at least 26 cases of serious illness, an official at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said Wednesday. CDC epidemiologist Sam Crowe said seven of the cases were fatal.
The prevalence is primarily affecting men who have sex with men; At least 24 cases and six deaths have occurred between gay and bisexual men, the agency said in a press release. About half the cases occurred among Hispanic men.
New cases are still being reported. The outbreak is “very ongoing,” Dr. Crowe said.
The disease, which is caused by a bacterium, Neisseria meningitidis, is usually spread through close or prolonged contact, through kiss-like activity. It can manifest as meningitis – inflammation of the membranes around the brain and spinal cord – or septicemia, an infection of the bloodstream. Jill Roberts, a molecular epidemiologist at the University of South Florida, said the disease was rare but serious and could lead to “literally overnight” death.
“The number of cases is not very high,” he added. “However, in any case of meningitis there is really something to consider that we are concerned about.”
If caught early, the disease can be cured with antibiotics. It can also be prevented with a vaccine, and health officials are urging people in high-risk populations, especially men who have sex with men and live in Florida, to be vaccinated.
“We want to make sure that gay and bisexual men are aware of the deadly outbreak in Florida and how easy it is to protect themselves – such as vaccinations,” said Dr. Crowe.
Vaccination is also recommended for college students and people with HIV or uncompromising immune systems.
Although the current outbreak primarily affects men who have sex with men, the disease can affect anyone with close contact with an infected person.
“Anyone can be infected regardless of their sexual orientation, age, or race,” said Dr. Crowe.
Florida first notified the CDC of an increase in meningococcal disease in late January, Dr. Crowe said. The state typically experiences 20 to 25 cases of the disease each year; So far this year, 44 cases have already been reported in Florida, he said. (All of these events are not related to the current outbreak; February and March were not related to a small cluster of college students, Dr. Crowe said, and there were other isolated incidents.)
Monkeypox has also recently been identified in many men who have sex with men, but the disease can also affect anyone, regardless of sexual orientation. Experts say it is important not to stigmatize men who have sex with men.
“People are very comfortable coming forward and it’s in everyone’s interest to make sure they get the care they need,” said Dr. Roberts.
Symptoms of meningococcal disease include fever, headache, stiff neck and rash. Those who develop these symptoms should seek immediate medical attention, scientists say.