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WeHo official warns of deadly meningitis strain

WEST HOLLYWOOD, Calif. – A deadly strain of bacterial meningitis, similar to the one that has been killing men who have sex with men (MSM) in New York City, has been found in California, health officials say.

Los Angeles area officials have issued a health warning and urged MSM to take safety precautions. If caught early enough, the disease can be successfully treated with antibiotics, and a vaccine is available.

Brett Shaad, 33, a lawyer from West Hollywood, fell ill after returning from White Party Palm Springs held over Easter weekend, according to media reports. His condition rapidly deteriorated, and he was declared brain dead late this week. The latest word was that he remained on life support on Friday night at Cedars Sinai, according to a family spokesperson.

Meningitis is not considered a sexually transmitted disease (STD), but can be spread through intimate contact such as kissing and having sex with an infected person or something as simple as sharing food.

A cluster of deaths in New York City -- at least seven MSM have died and 22 infected since 2010 -- have been attributed to this unnamed strain of meningitis. The city’s Health Department issued this statement on Sept. 28, 2012:

The Health Department is currently investigating a cluster of invasive meningococcal disease, commonly known as meningitis, among gay men and men who have sex with men. Invasive meningococcal disease is a severe bacterial infection that has a high fatality rate. Within the past four weeks, there have been four cases; one died and one person is in critical care. The cases are spread across several boroughs and among men ages 31 to 42 years old.
The most recent four cases have all been among HIV infected men. People living with HIV are at a greater risk than the general population of acquiring invasive meningococcal disease and if infected, dying from infection. This disease is spread by prolonged close contact with nose or throat discharges from an infected person. Examples of prolonged contact include living in the same household or intimate activities, including kissing and sexual contact.

Common symptoms of meningitis are high fever, headache, stiff neck and rash that develop rapidly within 2 days. People that have been in prolonged close contact with infected people need to see their health care provider immediately to receive preventive antibiotics. Symptoms may occur 2 to 10 days after exposure, but usually within 5 days. People who experience symptoms should seek medical care immediately

In WeHo, City Councilman John Duran spoke at a news conference on Friday to warn the community to be safe.

Duran, who knows the victim, described Shaad as “extremely fit” and “robust and healthy” until he fell sick on Monday. He said Shaad went to the emergency room on Wednesday and lapsed into a coma on Thursday.

People who are infected with meningitis develop symptoms within three to seven days after being exposed to the bacteria, health officials say.

Typically, a victim of meningitis gets a fever, headache, nausea, vomiting and complains of a stiff neck. Then a rash spreads rapidly, leading to an inflammation of the lining of the brain and the spinal cord. Death can come within hours, if the victim has not sought treatment quickly enough.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports there were about 500 deaths out of 4,100 meningitis cases between 2003 and 2007. Survivors can suffer brain damage and hearing loss, among other consequences.

Since January, Tijuana has seen an outbreak in meningitis cases, prompting Orange County health officials in March to warn public schools to be on the lookout for possible infections.

This new strain of meningitis affecting MSM is stirring up memories of the early cases of AIDS in the early 1980s.

“We don’t want to panic people,” Duran said. “But we learned 30 years ago the consequences of delay in the response to AIDS.”

Duran worried that if Shaad contracted meningitis in Palm Springs during White Party -- a fact that health officials have not confirmed -- then others may have been exposed to the bacterial infection. Up to 10,000 people attend White Party each year, according to Palm Springs tourism officials.

"If this resident was in fact in attendance at the White Party, it raises the issue, so we want to get the word out to any gay men that were at the White Party, that if they have any of these symptoms, go see their physician immediately," Duran said