Newly released preliminary data highlights a troubling trend as patients with HIV in the United States experienced a significant increase in rare and deadly meningococcal infections last year. 

According to a new report by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), nearly 10% of all meningococcal disease cases in 2022 occurred among individuals with HIV. This figure represented a substantial rise compared to the preceding five-year period from 2017 to 2021, during which HIV patients accounted for only 1.5% to 4.3% of annual meningococcal disease cases in the country.

Meningococcal disease, caused by the Neisseria meningitidis bacteria, is a rare illness. It is typically transmitted through contact with an infected person’s saliva or spit, such as through coughing or kissing. In some cases, the bacteria can spread through prolonged general contact with an infected individual. The disease can escalate quickly, leading to meningitis—an infection of the lining surrounding the brain and spinal cord.

Symptoms of meningococcal disease include headaches, fever, stiff neck, nausea, vomiting, and, in more severe cases where the disease enters the bloodstream, a distinctive dark purple rash. Shockingly, between 10% and 15% of those affected succumb to the illness even with antibiotic treatment, as highlighted by the CDC.

Recent data revealed an outbreak of meningococcal disease in Florida that primarily affected gay, bisexual, and men who have sex with men, resulting in at least 24 confirmed cases and seven fatalities, according to the CDC.

To combat meningococcal disease, the CDC recommends a two-dose series of the MenACWY vaccine for individuals at risk, including those with HIV. However, vaccination rates among HIV patients remain alarmingly low. A recent study analyzing data from January 2016 to March 2018 revealed that within two years of an HIV diagnosis, only 16.3% of individuals received one or more doses of the MenACWY vaccine, per ABC News. 

Among the cases recorded in 2022, 75% of patients with HIV were not vaccinated with the MenACWY vaccine, while 20% had an unknown vaccination history. The remaining 5% had received a vaccine, but the number of doses remained unknown.

The CDC emphasized the critical role of primary care physicians and healthcare providers in ensuring that HIV patients under their care are up to date with the meningococcal vaccine. In their report, the authors stated, “MenACWY vaccine coverage among persons with HIV is low; given the recent increase in meningococcal disease cases in this population, healthcare providers should ensure that all persons with HIV are up to date with MenACWY vaccination. Healthcare providers should also maintain a high index of suspicion for meningococcal disease among persons with HIV who have symptoms of meningococcal disease.”

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