An outbreak of meningococcal disease in Florida has led to at least 26 cases of serious illness, an official at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said Wednesday. Seven of those cases are fatal, said Sam Crowe, an CDC epidemiologist.
The epidemic is mainly affecting men who have sex with men. The agency said in a news release that at least 24 cases and six deaths occurred among gay and bisexual men. About half of the cases were found in Spanish men.
New cases are still being reported. Dr. Crow said the outbreak was “very ongoing.”
The disease, caused by a bacterium, Neisseria meningitidis, is usually spread through close or prolonged contact, through activities such as kissing. It can manifest as meningitis – inflammation of the membranes around the brain and spinal cord – or septicemia, a blood infection. The disease is rare but serious and can cause death “literally overnight,” said Jill Roberts, a molecular epidemiologist at the University of South Florida.
He added that the number of cases is not very high. “However, any case of meningitis is really considered something we are concerned about.”
Once caught early, the disease can be treated with antibiotics. It can also be prevented by vaccines, and health officials are urging at-risk populations, especially men who have sex with men and live in Florida, to be vaccinated.
“We want to make sure that gay and bisexual men are aware of the deadly epidemic in Florida and how easy it is to protect themselves – that is, vaccination,” said Dr. Crow.
Vaccination is also often recommended for college students and people with HIV or a weakened immune system.
Although the current epidemic mainly affects men who have sex with men, the disease can affect anyone who has close contact with an infected person.
Dr. Crow said that anyone, regardless of their sexual orientation, age or race, can get this disease.
Dr. Crow said Florida first notified the CDC of an increase in meningococcal disease in late January. The state usually handles 20 to 25 cases annually. He said 44 cases have been reported in Florida so far this year. (Not all of those cases are related to the current epidemic; there was a small surge of irrelevant cases among college students in February and March, Dr. Crow said, and there were other isolated cases.)
Many of the recent cases of Monkey Pox have been found in men who have sex with men, but the disease can affect anyone, regardless of sexual orientation. Experts say it is important not to defame men who have sex with men.
“It’s in everyone’s interest to make sure people feel comfortable coming forward and getting the care they need,” said Dr. Roberts.
Symptoms of meningococcal disease include fever, headache, stiff neck and itching. People who develop these symptoms should seek medical help immediately, scientists said.