Federal health officials are warning states about the potential for more meningitis outbreaks after confirming that a Minnesota man had the same deadly strain of meningitis that has caused outbreaks in Chicago and New York.
Minnesota health officials say the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is sending an alert to epidemiologists around the country asking for laboratory specimens for any cases of invasive meningitis, particularly among men who have sex with men.
Meningitis isn't typically associated with that demographic, known in health circles by the shorthand MSM. But the severe infection has hit big cities with large populations of gay men and may now pose an ongoing outbreak risk. Multiple cases have been identified in Los Angeles in addition to New York, and Chicago.
The rare bacterial illness appears to be gaining a foothold among gay men following outbreaks in 2013, said Kris Ehresmann, infectious disease director at the Minnesota Department of Health.
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Meningococcal meningitis typically strikes infants, teens and young adults. Some of its symptoms include fever, headache and a stiff neck. But cases can be fatal.
The bacteria spread through sharing a drink, coughing, kissing or other close contact with oral or nasal secretions. That's partly why young people living in college dorms are at a higher risk of contracting the disease.
The infection is more likely to be fatal or cause serious complications for someone with HIV, the virus that causes AIDS. But the current outbreaks are not concentrated in that population. The illness can be treated effectively with antibiotics if caught early enough.
The outbreak among men who have sex with men follows a somewhat different path than the usual meningitis transmission. The victims came in contact with one another in a more public setting, such as a bar or party, said Nick Vogenthaler, medical director of Hennepin County's Red Door Clinic and the Positive Care Center at Hennepin County Medical Center.
It is not a sexually transmitted disease, he added.
A meningitis vaccine can help prevent the spread of the disease and state health officials are urging all men who have sex with men to get immunized.
Vogenthaler says there are ample supplies of the vaccine at his clinics and more patients are asking about it but adds that it will be more challenging to spread that message to high-risk individuals who are not currently getting medical care.
"We're letting folks know that this is very serious, that it's dangerous and that it is important to get a vaccine because otherwise it's just sort of not on the forefront of people's minds of something they should be worrying about," said Matt Toburen, director of public policy and prevention at the Minnesota AIDS Project.
His organization is working with the state health department to reach out to the gay community. He says his group is primarily relying on word-of-mouth and social media to talk about the meningitis outbreak.
The state health department says in addition to drawing media attention to the outbreak, it has also placed informational ads on gay-oriented dating applications such as Grindr to recommend vaccination for meningitis.