Florida health officials warn of meningitis outbreak among certain groups

Federal and Florida health officials say the number of meningitis cases this year has already surpassed the five-year average.

The disease appears to be spreading among certain groups: college students, those who are immunocompromised, people living with HIV, and men who have sexual relations with men. The CDC reports that there is "no evidence to suggest that the cases among college students are related to the larger outbreak."

"Florida’s increase in meningococcal disease cases is mostly affecting people who live in Florida but has also affected some people who have traveled to Florida," according to the CDC's website.

In a news release from the Florida Department of Health, officials encourage the impacted groups to get the meningitis vaccine. The number of meningitis cases so far this year has already surpassed the five-year average, however, the news releases provided by the CDC and FL-DOH do not provide those specific figures.

Early detection is a key factor in the recovery process, doctors say.

"The most important thing to understand is that you need to be treated and treated as quickly as possible," said Dr. Jose Vazquez from the Baptist Health Medical Group.  "Back in the 30s, when we didn’t have antibiotics, meningitis had a mortality of over 80% to 90%, with the onset of antibiotics that mortality has luckily decreased to about 15%, but it’s still present and that’s even with treatment."

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According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, symptoms of meningitis include fever, headache, and a stiff neck. Additional symptoms are nausea, vomiting, sensitivity to light, and feeling confused.

"Almost from one hour to the next, the symptoms occur. They are very sudden and very quick, as opposed to some of the other symptoms of the flu where it’s more of a gradual manifestation. It takes maybe a day or two. This really occurs very suddenly and the patient becomes very, very sick quickly," said Dr. Vazquez.

Health experts say meningitis spreads through droplets, so frequent hand-washing, avoiding close contact, and wearing a mask can protect you. 

"This is a serious disease caused by bacteria called Neisseria meningitidis. Fortunately, these bacteria are not as contagious as germs that cause the common cold or flu," according to a statement from the FL-DOH. "People do not catch the bacteria through casual contact or by breathing air where someone with meningococcal disease has been. It requires close contact over a period of time, or direct contact such as kissing or sharing drinks."

State health officials are urging the following groups to get the meningitis vaccine:

  • 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.