State health officials are urging all men who have sex with men (MSM) to be vaccinated for meningococcal meningitis as soon as possible. The public health alert comes in response to the recent death of a Ramsey County man, known to have sex with men, who became infected with the disease.

Ramsey County Minnesota Image/David Benbennick
Ramsey County Minnesota
Image/David Benbennick

Given an ongoing outbreak of meningococcal disease occurring among MSM in Chicago, officials with the Minnesota Department of Health (MDH) are concerned about possible connections with the Minnesota man’s infection, though no direct connection has been found to date. Clusters of meningococcal disease among MSM have also occurred recently in New York and Los Angeles.

The man, who was in his 40s, died in mid-July and was found to be infected with serogroup C Neisseria meningitidis, the bacteria that can cause serious illness that often progresses rapidly and is fatal in about 10-15 percent of cases. This is the same serogroup that has caused the outbreak in Chicago. The deceased man was also HIV-infected – which placed him at greater risk for serious illness from the meningococcal meningitis. A majority of the confirmed meningococcal meningitis cases in the Chicago area were also in individuals that were HIV positive.

While relatively rare, meningococcal disease is very serious and potentially life-threatening. Symptoms may include fever, vomiting, headache, stiff neck, extreme sleepiness, confusion, irritability, lack of appetite, rash and in some cases, seizures. It takes approximately 1 to 10 days from the time a person is exposed to the bacteria until the symptoms appear. If you are an MSM or anyone and have these symptoms, you should seek medical care immediately.

“We believe that the MSM community in Minnesota may be at increased risk for meningococcal disease,” said Kristen Ehresmann, director of the infectious disease division at the MDH. “We want to try to head off the possibility of an outbreak occurring here, so we  strongly encourage all MSM, especially those who are HIV-positive, to go get vaccinated.”

Seven cases including one fatality have been seen in the Chicago outbreak to date. All were men who have sex with other men; and therefore, Chicago Department of Public Health has recommended vaccination for all MSMs and has facilitated vaccination clinics.

If you are an MSM, talk to your health care provider about getting vaccinated as soon as possible. If you are concerned about the cost of vaccination, there are clinics that offer free or low-cost vaccine to uninsured and underinsured adults through MDH’s Uninsured and Underinsured Adult Vaccine Program. You can search for a clinic in your area at: Vaccination Clinics Serving Uninsured and Underinsured Adults. MDH is working with clinics to provide supplies of vaccine as needed.

The following groups were identified by MDH as being at highest risk and are being advised to obtain a quadrivalent meningococcal vaccination (which contains serogroup C):

  • All HIV-infected MSM
  • MSM, regardless of HIV status, who regularly have close or intimate sexual contact with men met through an online website, digital application (“app”), or at a bar or party.

N. meningitidis is transmitted through close personal contact and can be spread from person to person in small droplets of saliva or nasal secretions. Those who have it can spread it through kissing, drinking directly from the same container, sharing smoking materials, or through other contact with secretions of the nose and throat. It cannot be spread simply through casual contact or being in the same room with someone who may be infected. Those who are HIV-infected may be at higher risk for severe disease and death from N. meningitidis.

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