An outbreak of meningococcal disease in Florida has caused at least 26 cases of the serious illness, an official with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said Wednesday. Seven of the cases were fatal, said Sam Crowe, a CDC epidemiologist.
The outbreak mainly affects men who have sex with men; At least 24 of the cases and six of the deaths involved 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 much underway,” said Dr. Crowe.
The disease, 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 as septicemia, an infection of the bloodstream. The disease remains rare but serious and can be “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 case of meningitis is really considered something to worry about.”
If detected 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 and living in Florida, to get vaccinated.
“We want to make sure gay and bisexual men are aware of the deadly outbreak in Florida and how easy it is to protect yourself — which is through vaccination,” said Dr. Crowe.
Vaccination is also often recommended for students and people with HIV or a compromised immune system.
Although the current outbreak mainly affects 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, race,” said Dr. Crowe.
Florida first notified the CDC of an increase in meningococcal disease in late January, said Dr. Crowe. The state typically sees 20 to 25 cases of the disease annually; So far this year, 44 cases have been reported in Florida, he said. (Not all of these cases are related to the current outbreak; a small cluster of unrelated cases emerged 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 found in men who have sex with men, but the disease can affect anyone, regardless of sexual orientation. Experts say it’s important not to stigmatize men who have sex with men.
“It is in everyone’s best interest to ensure that patients feel very comfortable when they come in and that they are receiving the care they need,” said Dr. Roberts.
Symptoms of meningococcal disease include fever, headache, a stiff neck, and a rash. People who develop these symptoms should see a doctor right away, scientists said.