The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is reporting “one of the worst outbreaks of meningococcal disease among gay and bisexual men in U.S. history” and recommends men who have sex with men get vaccinated against the disease.
The explosion of cases in Florida started earlier this year and now numbers at least 24 among gay and bisexual men, with 7 deaths, or nearly 30% of the total. The mortality rate for meningococcal disease is historically 10-20%.
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The CDC says the outbreak is “primarily among gay, bisexual, and other men who have sex with men, including those living with HIV. Recent data show that about half of the cases associated with this outbreak are among Hispanic men. This outbreak is mostly affecting people who live in Florida but has also affected some people who have traveled to Florida.”
The disease, which is caused by a bacterium, Neisseria meningitides, is typically spread through close or prolonged contact to saliva, like kissing and sexual activity or exposure to coughing.
“Getting vaccinated against meningococcal disease is the best way to prevent this serious illness, which can quickly become deadly,” said Dr. José R. Romero, director of the National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases.
“Because of the outbreak in Florida, and the number of Pride events being held across the state in coming weeks, it’s important that gay and bisexual men who live in Florida get vaccinated, and those traveling to Florida talk to their healthcare provider about getting a MenACWY vaccine.”
Meningococcal disease presents in two ways: as meningitis, when the linings of the brain and spinal cord become infected, or as septicemia, a bloodstream infection that damages the walls of the blood vessels and causes bleeding into the skin and organs.
Symptoms for both include fever, headache, nausea, vomiting, and confusion. A bloodstream infection can induce diarrhea, cold hands and feet, severe aches, rapid breathing, and a dark purple rash.
Anyone can get meningococcal disease but certain people are at increased risk, including infants, adolescents and young adults. College students who live in residence halls are at particularly high risk.
Meningococcal disease is treatable with antibiotics, but they must begin immediately after symptoms start to be effective.
The MenACWY vaccine is offered at doctors’ offices, pharmacies, community health centers or local health departments, the CDC said, and insurance should cover the cost for people for whom the vaccine is recommended during an outbreak. Anyone in Florida can get the vaccine at no cost at county health departments during the outbreak.
The vaccine is given by a single injection into the upper arm and protects against 4 strains of the meningococcal bacteria. A booster is recommended after 5 years.
According to the CDC, the outbreak affecting men who have sex with men is caused by serogroup C. There is also an unrelated serogroup B cluster among college and university students in Florida’s Leon County.
New cases are still being reported. The outbreak is “very much ongoing,” said Sam Crowe, a C.D.C. epidemiologist.