(CNN) — Don’t be surprised if you see the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) at this year’s LGBTQ pride parade or appearing on your dating app.
The CDC has been trying to warn men in Florida or traveling to Florida, particularly those who identify as gay, bisexual, queer or trans, that they need to get a vaccine that can prevent them from getting meningococcal disease. Meningococcal disease, including meningitis, is a bacterial infection of the lining of the brain and spinal cord.
There is an ongoing outbreak in Florida that the CDC describes as “one of the worst outbreaks of meningococcal disease among gay and bisexual men in US history.”
Until this Friday there have been 26 cases and seven deaths, 24 of them among men who have sex with men. Six of the deaths were also part of the LGBTQ community. Half of the cases have occurred in men who identify as Hispanic.
The disease does not only affect people who identify as members of the LGBTQ community, and the disease does not appear to be connected to a particular event. The CDC is still investigating, but the outbreak is ongoing.
The CDC’s Division of Foodborne, Waterborne and Environmental Disease Prevention Associate Director Sam Crowe told CNN on Friday that many of the meningococcal cases had been concentrated in central Florida, but that now there are cases throughout the state.
Meningococcal disease does not have to be fatal. Typically, between two and 10 people who contract the bacterial infection die, according to the CDC. But people who get sick need to get antibiotics right away.
CDC plans to continue a major publicity and awareness campaign, in both English and Spanish, in local newspapers, through gay-oriented media, and on social apps throughout the summer. The agency says its presence at pride events will continue through the summer as well.
On the Grindr app, the company said they are working with the CDC and Building Health Online Communities, a nonprofit that supports gay men’s health, to get the word out about the outbreak.
Grindr said it first sent out a message about the outbreak in April and then sent a second message two weeks ago to its users in Florida. One of the messages warns users that gay and bisexual men in Florida are at higher risk for meningococcal disease and should seek immediate care if they experience any symptoms such as a stiff neck, headache, or severe flu-like symptoms. Another message talks about getting the vaccine.
People may not know that there is an urgent need to see a doctor because the symptoms can look a lot like other health problems like a hangover or the flu.
“That’s part of the challenge,” Crowe told CNN. “High fever, headache, nausea, vomiting, even a dark purple rash. However, it can progress very quickly and lead to death in a very short period of time. So we tell people if you see those symptoms definitely go to your health care provider as soon as possible.”
Not as contagious as the common cold, Crowe said, people need close contact with those infected to get sick. But “close contact” can simply mean living in the same household.
Meningococcal disease is spread through respiratory secretions, such as saliva, or can be spread through kissing.
“It’s very worrying that we’re seeing that number of deaths and that even the people who have survived have a lot of really bad sequelae, like possible amputation of limbs and deafness. It’s a very serious disease, very serious,” Crowe said.
People living with HIV are especially vulnerable as they are immunosuppressed.
The CDC has long encouraged people living with HIV to get vaccinated against meningococcal disease to prevent serious illness. But now the CDC is telling the community, regardless of HIV, to get vaccinated right now. Even if they were vaccinated as a child. Normally, the protection from the vaccine wears off after about five years.
People should ask for the MenACWY meningococcal vaccine. There is another, MenB, but the serogroup C subspecies of the bacterium is the one that seems to be at the origin of these cases among the LGBTQ community in Florida.
“The vaccine is readily available. People can go to their local health care provider,” Crowe said. “The vaccine is also available at the county health department for free. We are trying to make sure that everyone who wants the vaccine can get it as soon as possible.”
The outbreak comes as the CDC monitors another unusual outbreak of monkeypox in countries where the disease is not endemic, including the United States. As of Friday, the CDC has reported 201 cases of monkeypox in the United States, 16 of them in Florida.
The threat to the general US population is low, the CDC says, but there are remarkably high numbers of monkeypox cases among gay, bisexual and other men who have sex with men. “However, anyone who has been in close contact with someone who has monkeypox is at risk,” the CDC notes.