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7 Mar, 2013 19:49

New York officials warn of 'absolutely terrifying' meningitis outbreak

New York officials warn of 'absolutely terrifying' meningitis outbreak

New York is facing a deadly meningitis outbreak that is targeting gay men, many of which are HIV-positive. The city’s health department said several gay men have been found dead in their homes, and is urging people to immediately get vaccinated.

“Since August 2010, we’ve detected 12 cases of this very specific strain but what we’re most concerned about is that in the past four weeks there have been four cases and one of those cases has died,” Deputy Commissioner for Disease Control in the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene Dr. Jay Varma, told CBS affiliate 1010 WINS.

All of the recent bacterial meningitis cases have involved HIV-positive gay men who have had close contact with nose or throat discharges from an infected person. The New York Health Department initially issued a warning about the bacterial meningitis for HIV-positive men, but have since changed that warning to apply to all gay men. There have been 17 cases of bacterial meningitis in New York since 2012 and 22 cases since 2010, seven of which were fatal.

“Meningitis symptoms usually come on quickly, and the disease can be fatal if not treated right away,” Health Commissioner Dr. Thomas Farley said in a press release.

Failure to seek medical assistance can quickly lead to death – sometimes within hours of symptoms showing up. Of the last five cases, three have been fatal.

“We’ve had several cases who have been actually found dead in their apartment before they’d even gone to see a medical provider,” Varma told WCBS 880. “So that is, to us, absolutely terrifying.”

The health department is urging at-risk New Yorkers, which are primarily sexually active gay men, to get vaccinated against bacterial meningitis.

Common symptoms include headaches, high fever, a stiff neck, and a rash. Long-term effects may include permanent brain damage, hearing loss and death. Symptoms usually begin two to ten days after exposure to the bacteria.

In response to the outbreak, San Francisco health officials have warned gay men to get vaccinated against meningitis if they plan to travel to New York – especially if they visit Brooklyn, where most of the cases have been based.

The most recent cases are unrelated to the nationwide outbreak of fungal meningitis, which was not contagious, but killed 48 people and infected 720 across 20 US states. But by being highly contagious, New York’s outbreak of bacterial meningitis has the potential to spread rapidly through physical contact.

“We think that people who are in these risk groups should be taking this very, very seriously,” Varma said. “Probably all of us have people that fall potentially within this risk group.”