3 recent deaths in California prompt local expert to warn: ‘We did not ring the bell quick enough with HIV. That was a catastrophic mistake.’
Three gay men in Los Angeles have died from meningitis since December. In New York seven of 22 who contracted the disease since 2010 have died.
Should the gay community be worried about this dangerous strain of bacterial meningitis that appears to have spread through encounters between men?
AIDS Healthcare Foundation Texas Regional Director Bret Camp said it will be important to keep an eye on what’s happening.
“We did not ring the bell quick enough with HIV,” he said. “That was a catastrophic mistake.”
But he also said it’s important to view this as an infectious disease, not a gay disease.
The latest death occurred in Los Angeles last week. The victim was Brett Shaad, a 33-year-old attorney who had just returned from the White Party in Palm Springs.
A week later, Shaad began feeling sick on a Monday, was diagnosed with bacterial meningitis on Wednesday, and died on Friday.
Health officials discovered two other young Southern California gay men died of the same strain of bacterial meningitis in December. Two others may have contracted the disease as well.
While L.A. county health officials are not raising an alarm, AHF decided to begin offering free vaccines in its Los Angeles clinics.
Camp said bacterial meningitis is “contagious, but not highly contagious like colds or flu.”
He said the disease can be contracted by sharing food, kissing or during sex, but it is not sexually transmitted and protection such as condoms will not prevent it.
In New York, most of the 22 cases that occurred in gay men were among people who hooked up on phone apps, online or in bars. New York City health officials said that meningitis is not a gay disease but this specific cluster seems to have been transmitted through intimate same-sex encounters.
In September 2012, the New York City Health Department recommended gay men who meet partners online or at bars get vaccinated.
Resource Center Dallas spokesman Rafael McDonnell said he’s gotten calls from people in the community concerned with reports of the disease.
Meningitis must be reported by physicians, and no cases have been documented in North Texas.
Dallas County Health and Human Services Director Zach Thompson said he’s watching the outbreak as well.
“We normally look if there are trends in other states,” he said.
He asked his staff to take a look and see if there are any upticks in Texas or in the Dallas area.
Meningitis is not a gay disease. According to the National Meningitis Association, about 1,500 Americans contract the disease annually, with 11 percent of those cases fatal. Adolescents and those living in dorms or barracks are at greatest risk.
The Centers for Disease Control recommends vaccination at age 11 with a booster at age 16.
In Texas, students have been required to be vaccinated for meningitis before 7th grade since 2009. Since 2011, students have been required to show proof of vaccination before entering college.
Meningitis is an inflammation of the protective membranes covering the brain and spinal cord. Diagnosis is often late because the early symptoms are similar to flu — fever, nausea, headache and stiffness in the neck.
Later symptoms may include sensitivity to light, a rash, cold hands and feet, confusion, delirium and seizures. Symptoms appear three to seven days after exposure.
Meningitis can be viral, bacterial or fungal. The strain affecting gay men is bacterial. When caught early enough, antibiotics usually fight the disease, reducing risk of death to about 15 percent. The risk is higher in the elderly and those with weakened immune systems. Untreated, meningitis is fatal.
Thompson said he was checking on Dallas County’s vaccine supply and making sure, in case of a local outbreak, it would be available to those who can’t afford to pay for it.
More on meningitis
The bacteria is transmitted through secretions of the mouth, nose and throat. The transmission is through close contact so people living together but not in a romantic relationship are at high risk of passing it to one another. But the bacteria is not sexually transmitted. Condoms will not protect someone from the bacteria.
Early symptoms similar to flu: sudden onset of fever, headache and stiff neck. Then nausea, vomiting, light sensitivity, rash and confusion.
Untreated, bacterial meningitis is fatal. The mortality rate in the U.S. over the past 10 years is 11 percent. About 15 percent of survivors will have long-term disabilities, including loss of a limb, deafness, brain or nervous system damage.
The vaccine that protects from bacterial meningitis does not contain live bacteria or even dead bacteria. It contains part of the shell of the bacteria, so it is impossible to contract meningitis from the vaccine.
This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition April 19, 2013.