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Florida officials urge caution as deadly meningitis outbreak worsens

Posted at 4:47 PM, Jul 13, 2022
and last updated 2022-07-13 17:47:51-04

TALLAHASSEE, Fla.  — Florida's outbreak of meningitis continues to worsen. The latest numbers show nearly twice as many cases of the deadly meningococcal disease as the state sees in an average year.

As of Wednesday, Florida Health has reported 48 cases and at least seven deaths. It was the highest total in the state since 2014.

Meningococcal diseases kill about one in 10 patients, even with treatment. It can happen within 24 hours, as soon as symptoms start. They include stiff neck, high fever or severe headache.

Alicia Stillman, MBA, MPH, is a Michigan mother who saw it happen firsthand. Her daughter, Emily, contracted meningococcal meningitis in 2013.

"I thought she was coming down with the flu," Stillman said. "She thought she was overtired. We agreed that she would take Motrin, and we would talk in the morning."

That was the last time Stillman spoke to the college student. Emily died after a little more than a day in the hospital. Doctors diagnosed her with what is called "Men B."

"I was naive," Stillman said. "I didn't even know about it. I didn't even know that such a thing existed."

Stillman has since created the Emily Stillman Foundation The group seeks to fight meningococcal diseases with education and advocacy for vaccination — shots that Stillman thinks should be required.

"Florida needs to step up to the plate," she said. "I believe that the universities should be mandating MenB vaccines. I believe the state should require two doses of the MenACWY vaccine when graduating from high school."

Florida is currently seeing two different types of the disease. The first, Men B, is often found on college campuses where kids live in tight quarters. More than half of the cases are "Men C," which Florida Health said is spreading amongst men who have sex with men.

"But anyone who is in close contact with anyone who is infected is certainly susceptible," Dr. Ulyee Choe, the county health director for the state health department, said.

Choe said contact tracing had started to slow the spread of the disease. Florida Health was also working on info campaigns in affected areas. Most cases have appeared in Orange County, where local leaders and county health offices have partnered to keep the public informed.

Choe also believed it was vital that people at high risk of serious infection — like those who are immunocompromised or in the LGBTQ+ community — take precautions.

"One disease is not like another disease," Choe said. "Something like the meningococcal disease that can have serious consequences— it is important to keep a closer eye."

Both the CDC and Florida Health recommend vaccination for those who are concerned. Insurance often covers the cost of the shots, and Choe said state health offices offer free vaccination for high-risk groups.

This story was originally published by WPTV in West Palm Beach, Florida.