Federal and state health authorities are investigating an epidemic of meningococcal disease in Florida, primarily infecting men who identify as gay, bisexual, or who have sex with men.
As of Tuesday, at least 24 cases have been confirmed and seven people have died, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
The outbreak is so severe that the federal health agency calls it “one of the worst epidemics of meningococcal disease among gay and bisexual men in United States history.”
Additionally, the Florida Department of Health said the number of identified cases exceeded the five-year average for meningococcal infections in the state.
“It’s concerning because the death rate is quite high,” Dr. Peter Chin-Hong, an infectious disease specialist at the University of California, San Francisco, told ABC News. “It’s not like an annoying rash or anything like a boil. It’s something that can actually kill you…even if you get antibiotics.”
Meningococcal disease refers to any disease caused by a specific type of bacteria, including meningitis, which occurs when the lining of the brain and spinal cord becomes inflamed.
Symptoms included headache, fever, stiff neck, nausea, vomiting and — if the disease enters the bloodstream — a dark purple rash, according to the CDC.
The disease is spread when bodily fluids, mainly saliva and sputum, are exchanged. But the disease usually requires prolonged close contact, making it less contagious than the common cold or flu.
About one in 10 people have the bacteria in the back of their nose or throat but don’t get sick, making them “carriers”, the federal health agency said.
Meningococcal disease can be deadly, about 10 to 15 percent of all people who get sick die, according to the CDC.
Although the disease has been primarily identified in the gay and bisexual community, there is currently no evidence that it is a sexually transmitted infection.
Some people are at higher risk of getting infected, including those who live in crowded places or have HIV, but it’s not a so-called “gay disease,” Chin-Hong said.
“In fact, more people who are not gay are getting meningococcal disease. It’s just that this epidemic has affected men who have sex with men,” he added. “Numerically, when you look at the stats, more non-MSM have them, including college kids [and] older adults.”
Chin-Hong said the risk to the public is low because meningococcal outbreaks tend to be regional and don’t usually spread from state to state.
But he urged people to follow CDC advice that anyone who identifies as gay, bisexual or has sex with men gets a meningococcal vaccine if they live in Florida or plan to travel to Florida. Florida.
“Getting vaccinated against meningococcal disease is the best way to prevent this serious disease, which can quickly become fatal,” said Dr. José Romero, director of the CDC’s National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases, in a statement.
He continued, “Due to the outbreak in Florida and the number of Pride events being held across the state in the coming weeks, it is important that gay and bisexual men who live in Florida get vaccinated and those traveling to Florida speak to their health care provider about getting a MenACWY vaccine.”
Neither the CDC nor the FDOH responded to ABC News’ request for comment.