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Health officials warn of meningococcal disease outbreak in Florida

Posted at 8:59 AM, Apr 13, 2022

Health officials are monitoring an outbreak of a meningococcal disease in Florida, mostly affecting men.

“Meningococcal disease is a disease that’s caused by a bacterial infection. The bacteria is known as Neisseria meningitidis, and the reason why we’re paying so much attention to this is because it’s a really serious disease,” said Dr. Jill Roberts, an associate professor at USF Health. “Untreated, the disease can result in fatalities about 70% of the time, so it’s incredibly dangerous.”

Up to this point, health officials say the number of cases identified in 2022 surpasses the 5-year average of meningococcal disease cases in Florida. The Florida Department of Health (FDOH) said, so far in 2022, they’ve identified 21 meningococcal disease cases in Florida residents, and half of those have been in people who identify as men who have sex with men.

“This does not spread easily,” said Dr. Roberts. “It does take prolonged contact. Usually what you see with spread are individuals who’ve been together for an extended amount of time, sharing utensils. It’s spread through kissing.”

Dr. Roberts said the most serious symptoms are a sudden onset of a severe headache and a stiff neck. She said you can also look for fever, nausea, vomiting, and a rash.

“It’s an emergency situation. If you have those symptoms of a headache and a stiff neck, you need to seek emergency care right away,” said Roberts.

The FDOH said the following groups should consider vaccination with a meningococcal conjugate (MenACWY) vaccine during this outbreak:

  • College and university students;
  • Immunocompromised individuals;
  • People living with HIV;
  • Men who have sex with men;
  • People in any groups listed above who received their MenACWY vaccine more than 5 years ago. 

“The meningitis vaccines are highly reliable: highly, highly reliable. Plus they actually protect you against multiple types of meningitis,” said Dr. Roberts. “I would definitely recommend it. If you don’t know if you’ve had it, check with your health care provider.”

The FDOH said you can find meningococcal vaccines, including the MenACWY vaccine, by contacting a health care provider, county health department, or pharmacy. It said FDOH County Health Departments offer meningococcal vaccines.

This story was first reported by Mary O'Connell at WFTS in Tampa, Fla.