On top of COVID-19 and now monkeypox, which has been disproportionately impacting gay and bisexual men in South Florida, health officials are now bracing for an outbreak of yet another sickness, mostly among men who have sex with men: meningitis.
Meningitis and meningococcal disease are seeing record numbers in recent years in Florida at a combined 129 cases as of July 17. There were 110 cases in all 2021; 96 in 2020; 121 in 2019 and 131 cases in both 2018 and 2017.
While similar, meningitis and meningococcal disease are distinct, but both serious and potentially deadly. Meningitis is an inflammation of the brain and/or spinal cord and could be viral or bacterial, while the meningococcal disease is a bacterial infection that could impact the brain, blood, or both.
Left untreated, they can kill someone in 48 hours. But with early detection and treatment, which usually comprises a prescription of antibiotics, the most serious symptoms can subside in a week or two, according to Dr. Clifford Kinder, director of research for the AIDS Healthcare Foundation’s southern bureau in Miami.
Of the cases 2022, 16 appear to be in Orange County. Another eight are in Palm Beach, nine are in Miami-Dade, and three are in Broward. It’s the highest case count since 2014, although still considerably less prevalent than it was in the early 2000s.
Still, with cases surpassing the last five years and 2022 only halfway through, health experts are growing concerned. Two subgroups of the disease are among the outbreak in Florida, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: serogroup B — which spreads among younger people living in close proximity, like in colleges, universities, and the military — and serogroup C — which is seeing cases among men who have sex with men.
While anyone can contract meningitis and meningococcal disease, gay and bisexual men have been disproportionately impacted by this outbreak. Now, the CDC is encouraging gay, bisexual, and other men who have sex with men to get a MenACWY vaccine if they live in Florida or are traveling to Florida, as well as anyone with HIV.
“Getting vaccinated against meningococcal disease is the best way to prevent this serious illness, which can quickly become deadly,” Dr. José Romero, director of the National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases, said in a statement in late June.
“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,” he said.
Dr. Kinder, of AHF, said he’s been giving the vaccine out in large numbers to anyone who’s seeking it and is qualified. He’s concerned with how quickly people have started seeking that vaccine in recent weeks and thinks there are a lot of cases that haven’t yet been reported.
“I haven’t heard of any meningococcal or meningitis cases in 15 years,” he said. “It was the last vaccines we’d give and now it’s one of our tops.”
Elected officials are also sounding the alarm, in light of health agencies’ findings.
"The CDC has called this moment that we're in right now, this outbreak in Florida is one of the worst outbreaks of meningococcal disease amongst gay and bisexual men in U.S. history,” State Rep. Carlos Guillermo Smith, of Orange County, said at an event in Orlando.
The bacteria that cause the illness grows in the upper respiratory tract and is transmitted by droplets, according to Orange County Health Director Dr. Raul Pino.
Although it is not as contagious as the germs that cause a cold or flu, it can still spread through close or lengthy contact, especially in enclosed areas like college campus housing and senior living communities, he said.
For those who want the meningitis vaccine, you can currently get vaccinated at CVS and Walgreens.
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