Seven people have died as a result of “one of the worst outbreaks of meningococcal disease among gay and bisexual men in U.S. history” according to the CDC. Experts are tracking the spread of the disease in Florida where it has already infected 26 people, many of whom are young men who were otherwise considered healthy.
Meningococcal disease is caused by a bacterium known as Neisseria meningitidis and is spread mainly through prolonged, intimate contact, especially kissing. The outbreak seems to be primarily affecting men who have sex with men, but it can affect anyone. Health officials say HIV is a known risk factor and that some of the men who became infected were HIV positive. Roughly half of all reported cases occurred in Hispanic men.
“It’s frankly, pretty scary,” said Sam Crowe, an epidemiologist at the CDC. “These people were hospitalized and underwent pretty intensive care.”
Considering the fatality rate, experts are urging men who have sex with men in Florida to get vaccinated as soon as possible.
“I don’t think we should be shying away from explicit messages aimed at communities at risk about what they need to do to protect themselves,” said David Harvey, head of the National Coalition of STD Directors.
“The outbreak is very much ongoing,” Crowe added. “We want to make sure that gay and bisexual men are aware of the deadly outbreak in Florida and how easy it is to protect themselves — namely vaccination.”
Jill Roberts, a molecular epidemiologist at the University of South Florida, said although the disease remains rare, individuals can develop serious, life-threatening symptoms “literally, overnight.”
“The number of cases is not very high,” she added. “However, any cases of meningitis are really considered something that we worry about.”
The disease is treatable with antibiotics when caught early. Experts say anyone that is sexually active with more than one partner should consider getting vaccinated, including college students, as well as those with HIV and compromised immune systems.
“Anyone can get the disease regardless of sexual orientation, age, race,” Dr. Crowe said.
The bacteria that causes the disease is present in one in ten people at any given time.
“It’s in everyone’s best interest to make sure that people feel very comfortable coming forward and that they are getting the care that they need,” Roberts said.
Officials say the disease has been affecting men who have sex men mainly because of the way the bacteria spreads.
“People do not catch the bacteria through casual contact, or by breathing air where someone with meningococcal disease has been,” the Florida Department of Health said in April. “It requires close contact over a period of time, or direct contact such as kissing or sharing drinks.”
Crowe added that the two cases he’s seen actually weren’t related to any of the other cases that have been reported, which suggests the bacteria are circulating throughout the community.
Symptoms usually appear within 24 hours, including high fever, headache, stiff neck, nausea, vomiting, and fatigue. They usually start out vague and then worsen quickly.
“It’s a terrible disease, so preventing it through vaccination is the best medical public health intervention,” Crowe said.
The disease can also infect the bloodstream and the lining of the brain and spinal cord, causing meningitis, which is how meningococcal kills people.
June is also known as Pride Month for the LGBTQ+ community, and experts are concerned the outbreak will only get worse during the celebration.
Doctors can prescribe treatment to reduce symptoms, but even with antibiotics, studies show up to 15 in 100 people with meningococcal disease die, and 1 in 5 survivors develop long-term disabilities, such as brain damage. Other long term issues resulting from the illness can include deafness, and some people may need multiple limbs amputated.
The healthcare community is trying to identify anyone who may be infected to prevent them from spreading the disease.
“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,” said Dr. José Romero, director of the CDC’s National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases.