The Minnesota Department of Health has issued a public health alert urging gay men to get vaccinated immediately for a potentially deadly disease after the death of a Ramsey County man.

The unidentified man, who was in his 40s, died in mid-July and was infected with meningococcal meningitis, a rare but potentially life-threatening disease health officials said is responsible for an ongoing outbreak in Chicago, New York and Los Angeles.

Officials said the Ramsey County man was infected with the same bacteria, serogroup C Neisseria meningitidis, which caused the outbreak in Chicago, where seven cases — including one death — have been confirmed. It is fatal in 10 to 15 percent of cases.

"We believe that the MSM [men who have sex with men] community in Minnesota may be at increased risk for meningococcal disease," Kristen Ehresmann, MDH's director of the infectious disease division, said in a statement. "We want to try to head off the possibility of an outbreak occurring here, so we strongly encourage all MSM, especially those who are HIV-positive, to go get vaccinated."

Epidemiologists use the term "men who have sex with men" because many patients do not identify themselves as homosexual.

The Ramsey County man, officials said, was HIV-infected, which is believed to have placed him at greater risk for serious illness from the disease. The disease is transmitted through small droplets of saliva or nasal secretions.

Symptoms may include fever, vomiting, headache, stiff neck, extreme sleepiness, confusion, irritability, lack of appetite, rash and seizures in some cases.

Men at risk are urged to talk with their health care provider about vaccination as soon as possible. Some clinics offer a free or low-cost vaccine to uninsured and underinsured adults through MDH's Uninsured and Underinsured Adult Vaccine Program.

Marcus E. Howard • 612-673-1720