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Meningococcal disease outbreak among 'worst' in history, says CDC

The agency is urging men, especially those who identify as gay or bisexual, to get vaccinated.

ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. — Meningococcal disease is disproportionally affecting the LGBTQ community in the state of Florida, but there's a way to prevent falling seriously ill or even dying.

It's getting vaccinated: That's the message from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in a statement Wednesday, urging gay, bisexual and other men who have sex with men to get a meningococcal vaccine (MenACWY).

This applies to people who live in Florida or who may be traveling to Florida in the future, the agency said.

There have been at least 24 cases of meningococcal disease and seven deaths among gay and bisexual men — one of the worst in U.S. history, according to the CDC. The Florida Department of Health last week told 10 Tampa Bay that there is a confirmed total of 35 cases so far this year, with a five-year average of about 21 cases annually.

Health officials have advised people in recent months to get vaccinated, with urgings recently coming from the Hillsborough and Pinellas counties' Department of Health. 

Meningococcal disease is an umbrella term for any illness caused by the bacteria Neisseria meningitidis, according to the CDC. This bacteria lives in the back of the nose and throat of about one in 10 people without causing illness, the CDC says, though it can spread to others through saliva or close contact.

"Generally, it takes close (for example, coughing or kissing) or lengthy contact to spread these bacteria," health officials say. The disease is said not to be as contagious as germs that cause cold or flu, however.

Problems can occur if the bacteria spreads and it invades another person's body. This could become meningococcal meningitis if the bacteria infects the lining of the brain and spinal cord and cause swelling. The most common symptoms include fever, headache and stiff neck.

If you experience these symptoms, Dr. Jill Roberts, a USF professor and epidemiologist, urges you to reach out to your doctor immediately for evaluation and treatment. "I cannot stress how important it is to reach out for care," she said. "You can have the onset of symptoms and a death within 24 hours" 

It's meningococcal septicemia if a person's bloodstream is infected. Regardless of infection, the disease can be deadly if not treated quickly with antibiotics.

"Getting vaccinated against meningococcal disease is the best way to prevent this serious illness, which can quickly become deadly," said José R. Romero, M.D., Director, National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases, in a statement. "Because of the outbreak in Florida, and the number of Pride events being held across the state in coming weeks, it’s important that gay and bisexual men who live in Florida get vaccinated, and those traveling to Florida talk to their healthcare provider about getting a MenACWY vaccine."

You can learn more about getting vaccination by checking the CDC's website.

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