Increased Meningococcal Disease in People Experiencing Homelessness

Published on January 26, 2024

The Denver Department of Public Health & Environment (DDPHE) is currently seeing an increase in cases of meningococcal disease in people experiencing homelessness or unstable housing in Denver County. Since January 12, 2024, four cases in people experiencing homelessness have been identified. Though no direct connection between the cases have been identified, DDPHE is considering this a community-based outbreak. 

Meningococcal disease is caused by bacteria and can lead to problems like a blood infection, meningitis (infection around the brain and spinal cord), and pneumonia. The illness is often severe and can be deadly.

People spread meningococcal bacteria to others by sharing respiratory and throat secretions (saliva or spit). Generally, it requires close or lengthy contact (for example, coughing, kissing or sharing beverages or cigarettes/vape pens) to spread these bacteria. Fortunately, the illness is less contagious than the common cold or the flu. People do not catch the bacteria through casual contact or by breathing air where someone with meningococcal disease has been.

Symptoms of meningococcal disease can include:

  • Fever
  • Severe headache
  • Stiff neck
  • Disorientation/confusion
  • Irritability
  • Sleepiness
  • Sensitivity to light
  • Nausea/vomiting
  • Pneumonia-like respiratory symptoms

It usually takes three to four days for someone to get sick after they’ve been exposed to a sick person, but it can range from one to 10 days. Anyone experiencing symptoms should contact their healthcare provider immediately.

DDPHE and the Colorado Dept. of Public Health & Environment (CDPHE) have alerted healthcare providers and people who work with or serve people experiencing homelessness about the increase in cases. This type of notification is routine when spikes or trends in infectious diseases are noted by public health. Information about meningococcal disease, such as symptoms, prevention, treatment, vaccination resources and guidance were shared with that group. The goal of this type of notification is to alert healthcare providers to diseases circulating in the community so they can be on the lookout for additional cases and provide information regarding treatment, reporting, and other important clinical considerations. 

DDPHE has interviewed all cases and offered antibiotic post-exposure prophylaxis (PEP) for guests and staff at three locations where the cases were staying when they became ill. People spread meningococcal bacteria to others by sharing respiratory and throat secretions (saliva or spit). Generally, it requires close or lengthy contact (for example, coughing, kissing or sharing beverages or cigarettes/vape pens) to spread these bacteria.

While risk for transmission is low for the general public, DDPHE recommends people experiencing homelessness vaccinated as a result of the uptick in cases in this population. Additionally, DDPHE in partnership with the Public Health Institute at Denver Health and CDPHE is also offering vaccine clinics in shelters for people experiencing homelessness. For insured individuals including Medicaid patients, vaccines are typically available through primary care providers. Additional information about meningococcal disease can be found online.