Florida men who have sex with men are warned about contracting bacterial meningitis

Miami HeraldJuly 4, 2013 

Men who have sex with men have been warned by the Florida health department to protect themselves against contagious bacterial meningitis.

Extra caution should be taken by men who’ve recently traveled to California or New York, where there have been several fatal meningitis cases reported this year.

“Since we have seen an increase in the incidence of bacterial meningitis in this population we want to educate individuals about the importance of preventing the disease,” said Dr. Celeste Philip, Florida’s interim deputy health secretary, in a news alert on Wednesday.

Bacterial meningitis is an often-deadly inflammation of the membranes covering the brain and spinal cord. It can be spread though casual contact, including kissing, sneezing, coughing and sharing drinking glasses and eating utensils.

It is “droplet spread” within three feet vs. airborne and prolonged contact is usually needed to contract the disease, according to the health department.

Bacterial meningitis is not sexually transmitted, but people with compromised immune systems — including those with HIV and AIDS — are particularly vulnerable, said Dr. Sheetal Sharma, an HIV specialist affiliated with Broward House, the county's leading AIDS service agency, and Broward General Medical Center.

“When any patients have symptoms such as fever, fatigue or eye sensitivity to sun or light, or a rash, neck stiffness or lethargy, they should immediately go to the ER,” Sharma said. “In the emergency room, they will check the blood. If they think it’s meningitis, they will do a CT scan and probably do a spinal tap.”

Patients diagnosed with meningitis usually are treated with intravenous antibiotics. “Time is of the essence, of prime importance, because the disease can be rapidly fatal,” Sharma said.

Both Sharma and Jamie Guirola of Care Resource, Miami-Dade County’s largest AIDS agency, say there has been no outbreak of cases in South Florida.

Men here are increasingly aware of the New York and California outbreaks, Guirola said.

“There is patient awareness,” Sharma said. “They are predominantly gay male patients and this has affected gay men in New York City. They're asking me what they can do to protect themselves.”

The best way, he said: Get vaccinated.

The injected bacterial meningitis vaccine, available at public heath centers, usually provides a lifetime of protection — unless the patient’s immune system is compromised, Sharma said.

“If they’ve been vaccinated in the past, a booster vaccination is recommended,” he said.

HIV patients are almost always at higher risk, even if they are responding well to medications and show no signs of illness.

“Even patients who are virologically suppressed and have high T-cell counts may still have compromised immunity,” Sharma said.

The past few weeks, many LGBT men and women from South Florida have traveled to celebrate gay pride in New York City, San Francisco and other big cities.

“My advice is that anyone who is traveling to a city with a high number of cases of infections such as New York or LA be vaccinated for meningitis,” Sharma said.