An outbreak of meningococcal disease in Florida has caused at least 26 cases of the severe illness, an official with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said Wednesday. Seven of the cases have been fatal, said Sam Crowe, an epidemiologist with the CDC.
The outbreak mainly affects men who have sex with men; at least 24 of the cases and six of the deaths have been among gay and bisexual men, the agency said in a news release. About half of the cases have occurred in Hispanic men.
New cases are still being reported. The outbreak is “very much ongoing,” said Dr. Crowe.
The disease, which is caused by a bacterium, Neisseria meningitidis, is usually spread through close or prolonged contact, through activities such as kissing. It can manifest as meningitis, an inflammation of the membranes that surround the brain and spinal cord, or septicemia, an infection of the bloodstream. The disease remains rare, but it 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, any case of meningitis is really seen as a concern for us.”
When caught early, the disease can be treated 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 who live in Florida, to get 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 yourself, that is, get vaccinated,” said Dr. Crowe.
Vaccination is also often recommended for college students and people with HIV or compromised immune systems.
Although the current outbreak has primarily affected men who have sex with men, the disease can affect anyone who has close contact with an infected person.
“Anyone can get the disease regardless of 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 sees 20 to 25 cases of the disease annually; so far this year, 44 cases have already been reported in Florida, he said. (Not all of those cases are related to the current outbreak; a small group of unrelated cases occurred among college students in February and March, Dr. Crowe said, and there were other isolated cases.)
Many of the recent cases of monkeypox have also been identified in men who have sex with men, but the disease can also affect anyone, regardless of sexual orientation. It’s critical not to stigmatize men who have sex with men, experts said.
“It’s in everyone’s best interest to make sure people feel very comfortable stepping up and getting the care they need,” said Dr. Roberts.
Symptoms of meningococcal disease include fever, headache, stiff neck, and rash. People who develop these symptoms should seek medical attention right away, the scientists said.