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Health officials dispel rumors of meningitis in San Diego’s gay community

SAN DIEGO – Local health officials are disputing a media report that meningitis has been found in San Diego’s gay community, and trying to quell rumors.

An uptick in meningitis cases has been documented in the gay communities of New York City and Los Angeles. Seven men who have sex with men (MSM) have died in New York City since 2010, and at least two MSM have died in Los Angeles since December. Some LGBT activists and community leaders are concerned and trying to prevent further infections or deaths.

On Tuesday, AIDS Healthcare Foundation president Michael Weinstein spoke at a news conference in L.A. and worried that not enough is being done to prevent a serious outbreak in meningitis in the gay community. LGBT|POV quoted Weinstein:

“We came before you a couple of days ago to say we’re here to raise an alert and not an alarm. That’s still the case because we do not know the extent of this and whether this should be characterized as an outbreak. But what is really alarming – we cannot do the job of the Public Health Department – whether that’s the CDC, the state or the County Public Health Department – the fact that the officials knew of this other case here in Los Angeles [Rjay Spoon] and one or two more in San Diego and said nothing is very, very concerning ...

“We’re calling today for Los Angeles County to immediately get behind this vaccination effort. We’re wondering how many more illnesses or deaths there needs to be before they’re going to get off their hands. The reality is if we have three deaths [two in LA, one in San Diego] – then there must be many more cases, because this disease is only deadly in about one in six cases. So we’re wondering how many more cases the County is aware of that it is not reporting on.”

San Diego health officials weigh in

San Diego Gay & Lesbian News reached out to health officials in San Diego, and found no evidence to support Weinstein’s claims about local victims from the MSM or gay communities.

A spokesman for Family Health Centers of San Diego said that agency had no cases of meningitis affecting MSM or the gay community, and deferred to the San Diego County Health & Human Services Agency.

Dr. Wilma J. Wooten, San Diego County’s Public Health Officer, said late Wednesday afternoon that the county has no meningitis cases involving MSM or the gay community. She said she is aware of Weinstein’s claims concerning San Diego, and puzzled by them.

To date this year, San Diego County has reported seven cases of meningitis, a number that Dr. Wooten calls lower than normal. “This is well within what we would expect to see,” she said.

A 22-year-old man died last week, a 47-year-old man is hospitalized from the disease, and two probable cases are being monitored, Wooten said.

Over the past five years, the yearly totals of meningitis cases locally have varied from a low of four to a high of 14 -- the average being nine cases per year. Wooten said those numbers are very low, considering San Diego County’s population of 3.2 million people.

County statistics show that meningitis in San Diego County is mostly affecting the Mexican-American population. “Some have been people who traveled to Tijuana,” Wooten said. Tijuana experienced an outbreak of meningitis starting late last year in which 20 people were infected, Wooten said, noting that no new cases have been reported there in recent weeks.

The Tijuana outbreak prompted Orange County schools in March to warn parents of students.

What is meningitis?

If caught early, meningitis can be treated with antibiotics. A vaccine is also available. However, untreated meningitis often proves fatal because the fast-spreading disease leads to an inflammation of the lining of the brain and the spine.

The disease affects all communities, especially among infants and very young children. The bacteria resides in mucous and saliva, Wooten said, and is generally spread when an infected person shares food or drink; shares a cigarette or a joint; or kisses someone deeply or remains in close contact with others in settings such as dorm rooms, classrooms, offices and prisons.

Some people are carriers of the disease and never show symptoms, Dr. Wooten said.

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.

HRC and GLMA team up to provide meningitis information

Also on Wednesday, the Human Rights Campaign and GLMA: Health Professionals Advancing Equality announced a partnership to provide meningitis information as word spreads across the United States about the uptick in cases.

The HRC Blog explained:

We encourage anyone concerned about meningitis to contact their healthcare provider for more information and possible vaccination.

Invasive meningococcal disease, commonly known as bacterial meningitis, is not limited to LGBT people. The highest rates of bacterial meningitis occur among infants less than a year old, and “clusters” of the disease can occur in dorms, prisons, and other settings where people may be in prolonged close contact. …

In a statement on the April meningitis case, the LA Center noted that the cost of the vaccine “is covered by some insurance plans or available for purchase at a cost of approximately $125,” although prices vary by provider and region. The Center also requested supplies of the vaccine for those who are uninsured or otherwise cannot afford it.

Gay and bisexual men in other parts of the country who are concerned about meningitis are encouraged to discuss it with their healthcare provider, since preventive vaccination is available. In a recent interview, Dr. Thomas Clark of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control (CDC) noted that anyone worried about bacterial meningitis should explore vaccination with a healthcare professional.

The cluster cases

In New York City, seven men who have sex with men (MSM) have died since 2010 in a cluster of at least 22 meningitis cases affecting the MSM community. Health officials said most of the cases involved the HIV and MSM communities, and the city’s health department issued a factsheet on meningitis and the warning signs.

In Los Angeles, the recent deaths of at least two gay men – Brett Shaad, 33, on April 13, 2013 and Rjay Spoon, 30, on Dec. 16, 2012 -- along with the infection of two more gay men (reported on Dec. 18, 2012 and Jan 9, 2013) have led some LGBT health advocates and a West Hollywood City Councilmember to advocate for heightened awareness and caution. People who knew Shaad and Spoon said both men were young, fit and healthy.

Dr. Wooten said health officials will likely conduct DNA tests to see if the L.A. cases are linked to the NYC cases.

Ken Williams is Editor in Chief of SDGLN. He can be reached at ken@sdgln.com, @KenSanDiego on Twitter, or by calling toll-free to 888-442-9639, ext. 713.