Meningitis Information

A series of bacterial meningitis cases in Southern California and New York City, resulting in the deaths of several gay men, have set the gay community on edge. However, preliminary tests suggest the cases on each coast aren’t connected.

Health activists became concerned in Los Angeles after a 33-year-old gay attorney from West Hollywood suddenly became ill from meningitis and died on April 13. Advocates for health for gay men, initially criticized local health officials for not pushing for vaccinations. However, “we don’t think it’s part of an outbreak or due to him being a gay man,” noted a medicine professional.

Still, the Los Angeles County’s public health department is offering meningitis vaccinations for free for those who are poor or uninsured.

In New York City, health officials are recommending that certain groups of gay and bisexual men, along with certain visitors to the city, get vaccinated against meningitis.

According to Los Angeles County health officials, four cases of meningitis in gay or bisexual men have been confirmed in the region since December, including one 30-year-old who died of meningitis in Los Angeles, and another man of the same age who died in the San Diego area, both in December, according to news reports.

The officials say the four Los Angeles cases in gay and bisexual men don’t appear to be “highly related” to those elsewhere in Southern California or in New York City.

In New York City, officials have noted more than 20 meningitis cases since 2010 in gay or bisexual men; seven of the men died. The city recommends vaccinations for any HIV-infected gay or bisexual men and those who have had close or intimate contact with men they met via websites, apps or at bars or parties. Visitors who have been to the city since Sept. 1 and engaged in these types of activities should get vaccinated too, city officials added.

Meningitis is transmitted through close contact with an infected person and kills, often quickly, by causing the lining around the brain to swell. It commonly spreads through places where people live closely together, such as dorms and military housing.

Meningitis hasn’t previously been connected to gay men in particular.

Many people have the bacteria that cause meningitis in their nasal passages, but the germs often don’t cause problems, said infectious disease specialist Dr. William Schaffner, chair of the department of preventive medicine at Vanderbilt University Medical Center. “They can carry these bacteria for long periods of time and transmit them to other people without being aware of the process.”

The germs can create a mild illness at first that can quickly turn deadly, especially if the bacteria gets into the bloodstream, he said.

“You feel kind of punky, and you maybe have a sore throat,” Schaffner said. “You lose your appetite, you get drowsy. Then you can slip into a coma.”

Antibiotics effectively treat bacterial meningitis, he said, but they must be given quickly. That’s why people should seek medical care if they suffer from symptoms like stiff neck, high fever (beyond 100.1 degrees Fahrenheit) or severe headache, he said.

Meningitis vaccines cost about $100, Chen said, and can cause side effects that are similar to those possible in people who get flu vaccines. The vaccines work against most strains of meningitis, Schaffner said, and take 10 to 14 days to become effective.