Florida’s meningitis outbreak is much more serious than monkeypox, says state’s top doctor

Monkeypox may be in the news, but Florida health officials are alarmed by another, more serious outbreak — meningococcal disease.

“Meningococcal disease, to some degree, concerns me more given the severity of the disease,” said Dr. Ulyee Choe, statewide medical director for the Florida Department of Health, at a Wednesday press conference.

The meningitis outbreak in Florida, which has primarily affected gay and bisexual men, has been much more deadly than monkeypox, which has not led to any deaths in the United States, Choe said.

By contrast, 12 people have died among the 48 cases of meningococcal disease confirmed in Florida in 2022 — a 25 percent death rate, Choe said. There have been four cases in Miami-Dade and two in Broward from Jan. 1 to July 19, according to the health department.

In June, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which is working with the state health department, said the two health agencies are investigating the Florida cases, which it called “one of the worst outbreaks of meningococcal disease among gay and bisexual men in U.S. history.“

Florida had 27 cases of meningococcal disease in 2021, 17 cases in 2020 and 23 in 2019 — compared with the 48 cases recorded halfway through 2022.

READ MORE: There’s a meningitis outbreak in Florida. Here’s who is at risk and what you need to know

What causes meningitis?

Meningococcal disease is caused by a bacteria and typically requires close contact to transmit it from one person to another, such as kissing or sharing of food or drinks. It can first feel like the flu, but quickly worsens to infect the brain and spinal cord, a condition known as meningitis. It can also get into the bloodstream.

The CDC, along with the health department, say the best way to prevent the disease is to get vaccinated, especially among people living with HIV, the virus that causes AIDS.

About half of the cases in Florida are among Hispanic men and some of the people are living with HIV, the CDC said. Most of the cases have been locally transmitted although some have involved people who have traveled to Florida and then became ill.

While meningococcal disease is primarily affecting gay men, it’s “not confined to one particular community,” Choe said. “It is a communicable disease, and anyone is susceptible.”

Vaccination is urged

High-risk patients should get the meningitis vaccine, which is readily available, Choe said. The shot is recommended for men who have sex with men and those who are immunocompromised.

Anyone who has been exposed to meningococcal disease or experiences high fever, headache, stiff neck, nausea, vomiting, light sensitivity and red and purple rash should seek immediate medical attention, Choe said. The disease can be treated — and prevented — with IV antibiotics.

High-risk patients should immediately sign up to get a vaccine, said Jeremy Redfern, press secretary of the Florida Department of Health.

“We need to make sure that the public understands … that meningococcal disease is a serious threat out of these two,” he said.

Florida has also seen seen a surge in monkeypox cases. As of Tuesday, the state had 208 cases of monkeypox, up from 73 cases about two weeks ago. Most of the cases are in South Florida, 110 in Broward and 56 in Miami-Dade as of Tuesday.

Every monkeypox vaccine in Florida is being administered, said Redfern. All appointments are being filled in line with the current supply — until the state receives another 10,700 doses.

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