A meningococcal disease outbreak in Florida has caused at least 26 cases of severe illness, a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention official said Wednesday. Seven of the cases were fatal, said CDC epidemiologist Sam Crowe.
The epidemic primarily affects men who have sex with men; at least 24 of the cases and six of the deaths involve gay and bisexual men, the agency said in a press release. About half of the cases have occurred in Hispanic men.
New cases are still being reported. The outbreak is “very much in progress”, Dr Crowe said.
The disease, which is caused by a bacterium, Neisseria meningitidis, is usually spread by close or prolonged contact, through activities such as kissing. It can manifest as meningitis – an inflammation of the membranes surrounding the brain and spinal cord – or sepsis, an infection of the bloodstream. The disease remains rare but serious and can lead to 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 that we are concerned about.”
When 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 for them to protect themselves, which is vaccination,” Dr Crowe said.
Vaccination is also often recommended for students and people living with HIV or with weakened immune systems.
Although the current epidemic mainly affects men who have sex with men, the disease can affect anyone in close contact with an infected person.
“Anyone can get the disease, regardless of sexual orientation, age or race,” Dr Crowe said.
Florida first reported to the CDC a spike in meningococcal disease in late January, Dr. Crowe said. The state typically sees 20 to 25 cases of the disease per year; So far this year, 44 cases have already been reported in Florida, he said. (Not all of these cases are linked to the current outbreak; a small cluster of unlinked cases occurred among college students in February and March, Dr Crowe said, and there have been other isolated cases. )
Many recent cases of monkeypox have also been identified in men who have sex with men, but this disease can also affect anyone, regardless of sexual orientation. It is essential not to stigmatize men who have sex with men, experts have said.
“It’s in everyone’s interest to make sure people feel very comfortable coming forward and getting the care they need,” Dr. Roberts said.
Symptoms of meningococcal disease include fever, headache, stiff neck, and rash. People who develop these symptoms should seek immediate medical attention, the scientists said.