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CDC in Boston to investigate illness striking homeless

Disease-trackers from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention arrived in Boston Wednesday to study the spread of a deadly bacterial infection among homeless people.

Dr. Anita Barry, director of the Infectious Disease Bureau at the Boston Public Health Commission, said the CDC is interested in the city’s experience because the federal agency is updating guidelines for handling clusters of meningococcal disease, the infection that killed two homeless people in Boston and sickened three others.

“They’re thinking if they look a little more closely at what’s going on in Boston, it might give more useful information,” such as what circumstances increase the risk of infection, she said.


Three of the CDC’s elite disease detectives from its Epidemic Intelligence Service began their work Wednesday, with a fourth expected later. The Epidemic Intelligence Service sends physicians, scientists, and other health professionals to solve public health problems around the world.

In the case of Boston, according to Barry, the agency reached out to the city for research purposes rather than the city asking for help. But she said the CDC investigation may yield observations that will help the city’s campaign against the illness, an unusual occurrence in a homeless population.

No new illnesses have been reported since March 4, Barry said. But that person’s death prompted the city to extend indefinitely a vaccination campaign in adult homeless shelters.

Since late January, four men and one woman who frequent Boston’s homeless shelters have come down with meningococcal disease.

The bacteria can infect the bloodstream, causing meningococcemia, or it can get into the lining of the brain and spinal cord, causing meningitis. The four men had the bloodstream infection. The woman, who had declined to be vaccinated, died of meningitis, Barry said.

The Boston Health Care for the Homeless Program has administered more than 2,400 shots in an effort to vaccinate as many homeless adults as possible. It has also provided antibiotics to anyone known to have had close contact with those who had been ill.


Felice J. Freyer can be reached at felice.freyer@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @felicejfreyer