21 confirmed cases of meningococcal disease as Florida outbreak spreads

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Meningococcal disease
An MRI scan of the brain of someone with meningococcal disease. Credit: WINK News

A more serious form of meningitis is making its way around the state, all the way down to Southwest Florida. Anyone can catch it, and we’re seeing an uptick in cases for reasons health experts can’t pin down.

It’s a disease that is spread by close or direct contact. Most of the cases have been found in Central Florida and more than half are in people between the ages of 20 and 39. As of Wednesday, there were 21 confirmed cases in Florida, which is higher than the state’s five-year average, and health experts tell WINK News they don’t know why.

Megan Gumke, the acute investigations manager for the Florida Department of Health, says the two forms of the disease they usually see are meningitis—which is inflammation of the brain and spinal cord and can lead to people having headaches and a stiff neck—and septicemia, in which people can experience a fever, rash, and altered mental state. Symptoms can take days to a week to arise after exposure, and state health officials are trying to figure out why Florida is seeing this outbreak.

“That’s what we’re trying to kind of figure out,” Gumke said. “You know, that’s why our county health department staff, they investigate all these cases, they do interviews, they try to find those connections and see what’s going on. We also do laboratory testing to help sort of identify the serogroups and things like that, to better understand the trends. We’re still investigating.”

Leaders with FDOH say half of the cases have been among men who have sex with other men. But another demographic contracting the disease is college students, which health experts say may be because of how easy it is to spread the disease by kissing and sharing drinks. For the time being, local college students tell WINK they’re going to be extra careful.

“I know that meningitis is a lot deadlier than most people realize, and people not being aware that there’s an ongoing spread across college campuses in Florida, especially, is definitely scary because that’s what happens in college,” said Joe Dorman, a sophomore student at Florida Gulf Coast University. “People are going out and doing things and if they don’t know about an ongoing disease that’s spreading… I mean, it could be just like COVID all over again.”

There is a vaccine for meningococcal disease available at the FDOH sites in Collier, Lee, and Charlotte counties. Doctors treat this disease with a number of antibiotics and say if you are experiencing any of the common or more serious symptoms, like a stiff neck or an altered mental state, you should get evaluated by a health provider.

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