An outbreak among gay men in Chicago of a form of meningitis that’s killed one person and infected six since it was first detected early last month is prompting the Chicago Department of Public Health to step up efforts to vaccinate people at risk.
Most of those infected in the current outbreak of meningococcal meningitis have been gay men, though Dr. Stephanie Black, the health department’s medical director for communicable diseases, says, “The infection can affect anybody. We see outbreaks where people are congregating closely, like a dorm or military barracks, people who are sharing close quarters.”
The bacterial disease can kill as soon as 24 hours after symptoms appear, Black says.
The Department of Public Health has launched a web app at ChicagoMeningVax.org to help people find out where they can get vaccinated.
The vaccination — provided by the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention — is available free at 22 Walgreens pharmacies for uninsured people 14 to 55 years old. People with insurance may be asked to pay a co-pay, Black says.
Nearly 11,000 doses have been distributed to agencies and clinics including the Howard Brown Health Center.
It can take up to two weeks after vaccination to develop antibodies against the illness, according to Black. People should be re-vaccinated every five years.
The bacteria that caused the outbreak, Neisseria meningitidis, normally lives inside a small percentage of people’s throats. It’s not clear how it gets into the bloodstream to cause illness.
The bacteria spreads through prolonged contact with saliva during kissing or while sharing food or drinks, according to Black.
Symptoms include fever, headache and a stiff neck but can also include nausea, increased sensitivity to light and confusion.
“It’s really important if you have those symptoms to get evaluated by a health provider,” Black says.
Ten to 15 percent of those who get the disease die, but even those who survive could face “profound complications,” according to Black.
“Eleven 11 to 19 percent can develop other complications, like hearing loss or limb loss,” she says. “It can have a profound effect on people’s ability to function.”
During Pride week, the department administered more than 1,000 vaccinations. Black says, dispatching crews with free vaccine to nightclubs and other locations.