A Meningococcal Disease Outbreak In Florida Is Growing Quickly. Here's How To Protect Yourself

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and Florida Department of Health are looking into an outbreak of meningococcal disease in the state, which resulted in at least 24 cases and six deaths among gay and bisexual men as of Wednesday, reports the CDC. The outbreak, which is believed to be growing, is one of the worst among gay and bisexual men in the nation's history and has surpassed Florida's five-year average of meningitis cases (per WebMD).

Most current cases have been reported amongst men who identify as gay and bisexual, but anyone is susceptible to the disease regardless of sexual orientation. People who have HIV are at increased risk. 

Caused by the bacteria Neisseria meningitidis, meningococcal diseases can manifest as meningitis and septicemia. Meningitis results in the inflammation of the tissue surrounding and lining the spinal cord and brain, while septicemia causes an infection in the bloodstream. Meningococcal bacteria spread by respiratory means, such as through spit, throat droplets, and other forms of respiratory output. While often thought of as being passed by kissing another person, meningococcal bacteria can also be spread through coughing, or otherwise being in close or lengthy contact with someone who is contagious.

Treating and preventing meningococcal disease

If caught early enough, antibiotics can be a treatment option for meningitis, according to the CDC. With the current outbreak in Florida, the CDC is advising that immediate medical attention be sought if hallmark symptoms such as a dark purple rash, high fever, headache, stiff neck, or nausea or vomiting occur. Seeking prompt treatment is critical since meningococcal diseases can lead to brain damage, deafness, limb loss, and nervous system issues. 10-15% of affected people will die, even with treatment. Diagnosis of meningococcal disease can only be determined by a medical professional who will collect samples of cerebrospinal fluid or blood to confirm the presence of the bacteria and infection.

The best preventative step is to receive a meningococcal vaccine, per WebMD. The CDC recommends the vaccine, especially for gay and bisexual men who either live in Florida or are traveling there.

At present, Florida is offering a free MenACWY vaccine which offers protection against several strains of meningococcal disease. The vaccine can be obtained from any county health department in Florida. If you don't live in Florida, you can make an appointment with your healthcare provider to receive the MenACWY vaccine.

Many colleges and universities require the vaccine prior to living in dorms. Booster shots are available if you've already received the initial MenACWY vaccine, but always consult with your doctor about your individual health and susceptibility to meningococcal disease.