What you need to know about the meningitis outbreak in Florida

So far this year, Florida has confirmed 21 cases of meningococcal disease, far exceeding annual averages, according to state health officials. They encourage high-risk groups – including gay and bisexual men, people living with HIV and students – to get vaccinated against this often serious and sometimes deadly disease.

An outbreak advisory from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says Florida is experiencing a “continuing large epidemic of meningococcal disease,” primarily among gay, bisexual, and men who have sex with men, including those living with HIV. HIV.

But in recent months, cases have also been reported among college students, including an April 1 announcement that the Florida Department of Health was investigating three confirmed cases in Tallahassee among people between the ages of 18 and 22. cases among college students with the largest outbreak.

The 21 cases of meningococcal disease in Florida in 2022 are on track to eclipse previous years if the epidemic is not contained. Compared to 2022, Florida had 27 cases in 2021, 17 cases in 2020 and 23 in 2019.

“Obviously this is ringing the alarm bells with epidemiology and they want to start making sure there is a vaccine available for this,” said Jeremy Redfern, press secretary for the Florida Department of Health. Redfern said some of the Florida cases have resulted in deaths, but he doesn’t know how many.

In addition to the three cases in Leon County, home to Florida State University, the health department has confirmed six cases in Orange, three in Lake, two each in Miami-Dade and Brevard, and one each in Hardee, Hillsborough , Osceola , Polk and Seminole counties.

Redfern said Florida epidemiologists are actively investigating the cases and trying to identify any that may be linked. But, he said, “a definite cause” of the outbreak is not known.

“It’s just something that happens periodically,” he said, “and we just have an outbreak once in a while and that’s usually among men who have sex with men and sometimes c is just random.”

STDs also increase

Meningococcal disease is caused by bacteria that are not as contagious as airborne viruses and generally require close contact for a period of time, or direct contact such as kissing or sharing a drink, to spread. It may first appear as a flu-like illness and rapidly worsen to include infections of the lining of the brain and spinal cord, known as meningitis, and of the bloodstream.

The Florida outbreak comes at the same time the CDC is reporting a significant increase in sexually transmitted diseases, or STDs, including gonorrhea, syphilis, and congenital syphilis passed from pregnant women to their newborns.

The CDC’s 2020 National STD Surveillance Report released on Tuesday found that reported cases of gonorrhea increased 10% and syphilis cases increased 7% from 2019 in the United States. Syphilis in newborns is up nearly 15% from 2019 and about 235% from 2016. And although reported cases of chlamydia are down 13% from 2019, officials from the CDC said the decline is likely due to reduced screening during the pandemic.

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Leandro Mena, director of the CDC’s Division of STD Prevention, told a news conference that the federal agency is tracking the meningococcal disease epidemic in Florida but does not yet know what is causing the outbreak. the surge in cases.

“Over the years there have been several outbreaks similar to this one,” Mena said. “We don’t know yet what the cause is. Meningococcal disease usually affects university-aged children and therefore vaccination of this population is recommended.

Jonathan Mermin, director of the CDC’s National Center for HIV, Viral Hepatitis, STD and TB Prevention, added that inoculation with one of two available meningococcal vaccines also appears to reduce the risk of contracting gonorrhea.

“Recent research that has just been published indicates that a meningococcal vaccine may have collateral benefits and reduce the risk of gonorrhea by approximately 30%,” Mermin said. “There is more research on this, but it at least shows some hope that in the future we may develop effective and safe vaccines against gonorrhea.”

The pandemic effect

The pandemic is one of the factors driving the increase in STDs and likely contributing to the meningococcal disease epidemic in Florida.

The increases in STDs reported by the CDC for 2020 were likely due to delayed in-person and routine medical care, less frequent screening for sexually transmitted diseases, shortages of laboratory tests and supplies, and failures in the health insurance coverage due to unemployment, Mermin said.

The pandemic has also forced state health departments in Florida and elsewhere to divert personnel, like contact tracers who specialize in containing the spread of infectious diseases, away from STDs and into the COVID-19 response.

“The COVID-19 pandemic has come at a very difficult time for STD control,” Mermin said. “We already had a strained and collapsing public health infrastructure. Many communities do not have specialized STD clinics. So this led to an exacerbation of already growing trends.

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