Florida health officials warn of ‘alarming’ outbreak of meningococcal disease

Meningococcal Disease — Courtesy: Shutterstock — Steph Photographies

Florida health officials are warning residents about an ‘alarmingly large’ outbreak of a potentially fatal bacterial illness known as meningococcal disease. Meningococcal disease commonly leads to two possibly fatal infections—meningitis, when the lining of the spinal cord and brain become infected, and a bloodstream infection. The disease is primarily affecting gay and bisexual men.

According to Florida Department of Health data, so far in 2022, there have been 21 confirmed meningococcal disease cases as of Monday. This number is higher than the Sunshine State’s five-year average of meningococcal cases.

“[Florida Department of Health] epidemiologists are investigating each case as well as contacting people with potential or direct exposure to known cases to provide them with information and treatment options,” the department said in a statement.

Currently, most of the cases have been found in Central Florida, and over half of them are in people between the ages of 20 and 39, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The CDC recently issued an urgent alert on the outbreak, urging bisexual and gay men who live in Florida or who plan to travel to the state to get vaccinated against the troubling bacterial illness. Although it has affected individuals who have traveled to Florida, the outbreak is primarily among residents, the CDC said.

There have also been several cases of meningococcal disease reported among Florida college students in recent months, however, “there is no evidence to suggest that the cases among college students are related to the larger outbreak,” the CDC said.

Meningococcal disease is a rare but serious bacterial infection that is mainly spread through close or direct contact, such as kissing. Symptoms include fever, stiff neck, headache, nausea, light sensitivity, vomiting, confusion, and rash. 

Those who contract the disease could suffer from very serious complications, such as kidney damage, hearing loss, brain damage, nervous system problems, or loss of limbs.

“Getting vaccinated is the best way to protect against meningococcal disease,” the Florida Department of Health said.

Florida health officials are urging immunocompromised individuals, people living with HIV, and college students to get vaccinated against the potentially fatal disease amid the outbreak. Individuals in those groups who received their MenACWY—one of the two types of meningococcal vaccines available in the U.S.—vaccine more than five years ago are also encouraged to get vaccinated.

The CDC advises those planning to travel to Florida should receive the vaccine at least two weeks before traveling. 

College students have the option of choosing to get a MenB vaccine, which is available for individuals between the ages of 16 and 23. The CDC highly recommends doing so to protect against meningococcal disease.

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