Health officials investigate major meningococcal disease in Florida

A major outbreak of meningococcal disease is spreading in Florida. The bacteria causes infections that can quickly become deadly, and the CDC is now investigating along with the Florida Department of Health.

It is a dangerous and serious illness, and Florida is seeing one of the worst outbreaks of meningococcal disease among gay and bisexual men in U.S. history.

"Some individuals are getting infected who live here in Florida and then other individuals are traveling to Florida and becoming infected," said Dr. Jill Roberts, USF College of Public Health Associate Professor.

According to the CDC, there have been at least 24 cases and six deaths in the Sunshine State. However, preliminary data reported to the Florida Department of Health shows 44 infections, including cases in Hillsborough and Polk counties.

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Meningococcal bacteria is spread by sharing saliva through close or lengthy contact like sharing drinks or kissing. It is not just gay and bisexual men who are at risk, everyone can contract the disease. The infection can come on quickly and is often deadly.

"The estimate is that 70% of people that have no treatment whatsoever will die from this infection," Roberts said. "One in five individuals who are treated but survive the infection will go on to lifelong disability, including the loss of limbs, the loss of hearing, neurological damage and brain damage."

Meningococcal disease includes meningitis, infections of the lining of the brain and spinal cord, as well as bloodstream infections. Early symptoms can be flu-like including nausea, vomiting, light sensitivity and a dark purple rash. However, experts said pay attention to the big three.

"If you have a combination of fever, headache and also a stiff neck, that's a warning sign. You should go ahead and seek some care," said Roberts.

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In 2015, Jimmy Barnes was experiencing most of those symptoms. The 20-year-old took an ambulance to get some help.

"He went to the hospital, and they were very busy at the time, and they diagnosed him with the flu and sent him home with Theraflu and, you know, an anti-nausea medication. By the next morning, Jimmy was dead," recalled his mother, Charlene Barnes.

Her son had been misdiagnosed, dying from meningococcal disease The Bradenton mother has made it her mission to educate people about the dangerous infection, and said everyone needs to be their own advocate in healthcare. A few simple tests and Jimmy would still be alive.

"It was the worst thing anybody can go through and continues to be. I mean, it's a hole that will never be filled, you know, a joy that will never be there again," Barnes said.

The strain Jimmy had is not the same one causing the current outbreak in the state. However, there are vaccines for both. Health officials say college and university students, people who are immunocompromised, anyone living with HIV, and men who have sex with men should get the shots while this disease continues to spread.