An outbreak of meningococcal disease in Florida has caused at least 26 cases of the serious illness, a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention official 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 were among 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 usually spread 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 it is serious and can “literally cause death overnight,” said Jill Roberts, a molecular epidemiologist at the University of South Florida.
“The number of cases is not very high,” she added. “However, cases of meningitis are really considered something to be concerned about.”
When detected early, the disease is treatable with antibiotics. It can also be prevented with a vaccine, and health officials are urging at-risk groups, 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 Florida outbreak and how easy it is to protect themselves — namely, vaccination,” said Dr. Crowe.
Vaccination is also often recommended for students and people with HIV or compromised immune systems.
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 a spike in meningococcal disease in late January, said Dr. Crowe. The state 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 occurred among college students in February and March, Dr. Crowe said, and there were other isolated cases.)
Many of the recent cases of monkey pox have also been found 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 say.
“It’s in everyone’s best interest to make sure people are very comfortable coming forward and getting the care they need,” said Dr. Roberts.
Symptoms of meningococcal disease include fever, headache, a stiff neck, and skin rash. People who develop these symptoms should seek immediate medical attention, scientists said.