An outbreak of meningococcal disease in Florida has caused at least 26 cases of severe disease, a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention official said Wednesday. Seven of the cases were fatal, said Sam Crowe, a CDC epidemiologist.
The epidemic mainly affects men who have sex with men; at least 24 of the cases and six of the deaths were between gay and bisexual men, the agency said in a press release. About half of the cases occurred in Hispanic men.
New cases are still being reported. The outbreak is “very ongoing,” said Dr. Crowe.
The disease, which is caused by a bacterium, Neisseria meningitidis, is typically transmitted through close or prolonged contact, through activities such as kissing. It can manifest as meningitis – an inflammation of the membranes around the brain and spinal cord – or septicemia, an infection of the bloodstream. The disease remains rare but is serious and can cause death “literally overnight,” said Jill Roberts, a molecular epidemiologist at the University of South Florida.
“The number of cases is not very high,” he added. “However, all cases of meningitis are really considered something we care about.”
If caught early, the disease is treatable with antibiotics. It can also be prevented with a vaccine, and health officials are urging at-risk populations, especially men who have sex with men and live in Florida, to get vaccinated.
“We want to make sure gay and bisexual men are aware of the deadly epidemic in Florida and how easy it is to protect themselves, namely vaccination,” said Dr. Crowe.
Vaccination is also often recommended for college students and people with HIV or compromised immune systems.
Although the current outbreak has mostly affected men who have sex with men, the disease can affect anyone who has close contact with an infected individual.
“Anyone can get the disease regardless of sexual orientation, age, race,” said Dr. Crowe.
Florida first notified the CDC of a spike in meningococcal disease in late January, Dr. Crowe said. The state typically sees 20 to 25 cases of the disease per year; 44 cases have already been reported in Florida so far this year, he said. (Not all of these cases are linked to the current outbreak; a small group of unrelated cases occurred among college students in February and March, Dr. Crowe said, and there have been other isolated cases.)
Many of the recent cases of monkeypox have also been identified in men who have sex with men, but even that disease can affect anyone, regardless of sexual orientation. It’s crucial not to stigmatize men who have sex with men, experts said.
“It is in everyone’s best interest to make sure that people feel comfortable coming forward and are getting the care they need,” said Dr. Roberts.
Symptoms of meningococcal disease include fever, headache, stiff neck, and skin rashes. People who develop these symptoms should see a doctor right away, the scientists said.