Since last summer, nine men who have sex with men (MSM) have been confirmed with meningococcal meningitis in the Chicago area with the announcement of two additional cases today, prompting health officials to urge gay and bisexual men to get vaccinated against the serious bacterial infection.

Meningitis symptoms/Public domain image/Mikael Häggström
Meningitis symptoms/Public domain image/Mikael Häggström

One of the cases last year died from the infection.

Since May of 2015, The Chicago Department of Public Health (CDPH) has distributed nearly 18,000 vaccinations, of which 14,653 have been administered. With these two new cases identified, CDPH is increasing awareness and making affordable vaccines available across the city, while focusing primarily on MSM, the population in which is largely most affected.

“Meningitis still poses a serious threat to all men who have sex with men in Chicago and if you have not been vaccinated within the last 5 years, you could be at risk,” said CDPH Commissioner, Julie Morita, MD. “We are continuing our partnership with more than 80 community and clinical advocates to provide free and low cost vaccinations to protect our most vulnerable residents.”

CDPH and Howard Brown Health convened the press conference to discuss these new findings with the media and to remind the community of the need for caution and the importance of vaccination.Though anyone can contract meningococcal meningitis, African-American MSM and MSM living with HIV continue to be disproportionately affected by this outbreak.

“Men who have sex with men and MSM who are HIV positive are at substantially higher risk than the general population of contracting a bacterial meningitis infection,” said David Ernesto Munar, President and CEO of Howard Brown Health. “That’s why we recommend to our clients and the gay, bi, and transgender community as a whole to get vaccinated to protect yourself and reduce or eliminate the chance that you can be infected with something as deadly as meningitis.”

CDPH also released a health alert to Chicago’s medical providers about the ongoing outbreak to remind them of CDPH’s vaccination recommendations for the impacted community.

CDPH recommends that all men who have sex with men get vaccinated against meningitis. All MSM who are living with HIV will need two vaccinations, at least 8 weeks apart.

Low- and no-cost vaccinations are available at 80 locations around the city.  For a complete list of all Chicago locations where vaccines are available for little or no cost, visit the online app and the  CDPH website.

“The vaccine is safe, effective and available free of charge at CDPH clinics. It is also available at most doctor’s offices, clinics and CDPH partner clinics, including many Walgreens, though some partner sites might request a co-pay.” noted Dr. Sarah Kemble, Medical Director for CDPH’s Communicable Disease Program.

Invasive meningococcal disease is a rare but severe bacterial infection that results in serious illnesses including meningitis. Signs and symptoms of meningitis include fever, headache and a stiff neck. This might be accompanied by nausea, vomiting, increased sensitivity to light and general confusion. Those who are living with HIV are at increased risk of developing disease. Even with antibiotic treatment, at least one in ten people who develops this form of meningitis is expected to die from it.