CDC says Florida meningococcal outbreak on the rise

A meningococcal outbreak in Florida has caused at least 26 cases of severe illness, a spokesman for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said Wednesday. According to Sam Crow, an epidemiologist for the CDC, seven cases have been fatal.

The outbreak primarily affects men who have sex with men; at least 24 cases and six deaths have occurred among gay and bisexual men, the agency said in a statement.. Approximately half of the cases occur in Hispanic men.

New cases reported. The outbreak is “pretty much ongoing,” the doctor said. Crowe said.

The disease, caused by the bacterium Neisseria meningitidis, is usually spread through close or prolonged contact, such as kissing. It can present as meningitis—an inflammation of the lining of the brain and spinal cord—or septicemia, an infection of the bloodstream. According to Jill Roberts, a molecular epidemiologist at the University of South Florida, the disease remains rare but serious and can lead to death “literally overnight.”

“The number of cases is not very high,” she added. “However, any cases of meningitis are really considered something we’re worried about.”

If detected early, the disease is treated with antibiotics. It can also be prevented with a vaccine, and health officials are urging risk groups, 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 getting vaccinated,” the doctor said. Crowe said.

Vaccination is also often recommended for college students and people with HIV or a weakened immune system.

Although the current outbreak has primarily affected men who have sex with men, the disease can affect anyone who comes into close contact with an infected person.

“Anyone can get sick, regardless of sexual orientation, age, race,” says the doctor. Crowe said.

Florida first notified the CDC of a spike in meningococcal infections in late January. Crowe said. The state typically reports 20 to 25 cases each year; Florida has already reported 44 cases this year, he said. (Not all of these cases are related to the current outbreak; a small group of unrelated cases occurred among college students in February and March, Dr. Crowe said, and there were other isolated cases.)

Many of recent cases of monkeypox have also been identified in men who have sex with men, but the disease can also affect anyone, regardless of sexual orientation. Experts say it’s critical not to stigmatize men who have sex with men.

“Everyone has an interest in making sure people feel very comfortable coming forward and that they get the help they need,” says the doctor. Roberts said.

Symptoms of meningococcal infection include fever, headache, stiff neck, and rash. People who develop these symptoms should seek immediate medical attention, scientists say.