An outbreak of meningococcal disease in Florida has caused at least 26 cases of serious illness, an official from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said on Wednesday. Seven of the cases have been fatal, said Sam Crowe, a CDC epidemiologist.
The outbreak is primarily affecting 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. Roughly half of the cases have occurred in Hispanic men.
New cases are still being reported. The outbreak is “very much ongoing,” Dr. Crowe said.
The disease, which is caused by a bacterium, Neisseria meningitidis, is typically spread through close or prolonged contact, via 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,” she added. “However, any cases of meningitis are really considered something that we worry about.”
When 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 that gay and bisexual men are aware of the deadly outbreak in Florida and how easy it is to protect themselves – namely vaccination,” Dr. Crowe said.
Vaccination is also often recommended for college students and people with HIV or compromised immune systems.
Although the current outbreak has affected primarily 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,” Dr. Crowe said.
Florida first notified the CDC about a spike 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 linked to the current outbreak; a small cluster of unrelated cases occurred among college students in February and March, Dr. Crowe said, and there were other isolated cases.)
Many of the recent monkeypox cases have also been identified in men who have sex with men, but that disease, too, can affect anyone, regardless of sexual orientation. It is critical not to stigmatize men who have sex with men, experts said.
“It’s in everyone’s best interest to make sure that people feel very comfortable coming forward and that they are getting the care that they need.” Roberts said.
Symptoms of meningococcal disease include a fever, a headache, a stiff neck and a rash. People who develop these symptoms should seek medical attention immediately, scientists said.