Neisseria meningitidis, often referred to as meningococcus, is a bacterium that can cause meningitis and other forms of meningococcal disease such as meningococcemia, a life-threatening sepsis.
WATCH: Three Dead from Meningitis in Los Angeles

By Sunnivie Brydum

Originally published on Advocate.com April 05 2014 2:35 PM ET

With eight confirmed cases of bacterial meningitis in the Los Angeles area this year — including three deaths from the bacterial infection — county health officials are encouraging residents, especially men who have sex with men, to get vaccinated, regardless of HIV status. 

The County of Los Angeles Public Health issued new vaccination guidelines for men who have sex with men earlier this week, noting that four of the eight confirmed cases occurred in men who live or socialize in the LGBT-dense West and North Hollywood areas. Public Health officials noted that this outbreak differs from other similar alerts issued in 2012 and 2013, because of the commonalities between those diagnosed. Three of those infected were between the ages of 27 and 28. 

"All HIV-positive MSM and all MSM, regardless of HIV status, who regularly have close or intimate contact with multiple partners, or who seek partners through the use of digital applications, particularly those who share cigarettes, marijuana or use illegal drugs, should visit their health provider to be vaccinated against invasive meningococcal disease,” said Jonathan E. Fielding, MD, MPH, Director of Public Health and Health Officer in the Public Health alert. “At-risk MSM who don’t have health insurance can obtain a free vaccination through the Department of Public Health."

According to the Public Health announcement, bacterial meningitis is:

"A sporadic and uncommon bacterial infection of the blood or the lining of the brain and spinal cord that can affect the entire body. The infection can cause brain damage, hearing loss, and even death. The bacteria can be spread by very close exposure to sneezing and coughing or direct contact with saliva or nose mucus. Disease symptoms may include: high fever, stiff neck, altered mental status, skin rash, severe headache, low blood pressure, aversion to bright lights, and generalized muscle pains. Symptoms usually occur within 5 days of the exposure, but may present as many as 10 days after exposure. IMD progresses rapidly, so immediate diagnosis and treatment is imperative."

The Public Health announcement stresses that meningitis is generally less contagious than the flu, and cannot be spread through casual contact like sharing a room with an infected person. But for those who are at greater risk, including anyone with a compromised immune system like those who are HIV-positive, the infection can be spread through shared saliva or mucus, including by shared smoking devices — including marijuana, cigarettes, or hookah — beverages, or through kissing or coughing.

L.A. Public Health is offering free vaccinations for at-risk populations, regardless of HIV status. To find a listing of clinics offering the vaccine, click here, or call the L.A. County Information Line at 211 from any cellphone or landline in the county. 

For more information about meningitis, visit the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention or Public Health's meningitis page

Watch a news report from Los Angeles CBS affiliate below.