Officials in Los Angeles County have started offering the meningitis vaccine for free to low-income and uninsured people in response to recent cases of the deadly disease. So far, there have been thirteen cases of meningitis since November. These include, according to media reports, four gay men, two of whom died very suddenly.
Right now, officials will not call the cases an outbreak. Dr. Jonathan E. Fielding, Director of Public Health at the Los Angeles County Department of Health Services, spoke about the recent cases, saying “It’s a very serious disease, but it’s also a rare disease.”
Fielding added that the number of cases this year has not been higher than normal; each year, the department sees about 25 cases.
Our brains and spinal cords are surrounded and protected by a membrane called the “meninges.” Meningitis is a disease caused by the swelling or inflammation of the meninges. There are several different causes of meningitis; bacteria, viruses, fungi, can parasites all cause meningitis. The cases in Los Angeles are meningococcal meningitis – they are caused by bacteria.
The disease is transmitted when a person comes in contact with the saliva or mucus of an infected person. Transmission often occurs in areas where people live in crowded spaces, such as college dormitories or military housing. Meningitis is less contagious than the common cold, so only people who are directly exposed to these fluids from an infected person are at risk.
Meningococcal meningitis can be prevented by a vaccine and treated with antibiotics. However, if the disease is left untreated, it can be fatal. About 1000-1200 people get meningitis in the United States each year, and ten to fifteen percent die. Other complications can include loss of limbs, strokes, seizure and loss of hearing.
Because four of the thirteen cases of meningitis in Los Angeles have been in gay men, some people have insisted that officials should target prevention messages towards this community. While Dr. Amanda Cohn, an epidemiologist at CDC, warned that calling meningitis a “gay disease” may make people who do not identify as gay ignore their risk for infection, Michael Weinstein, an activist who works with the AIDS Healthcare Foundation in Los Angeles, was frustrated by the response of health officials.
On record with the Huffington Post, Weinstein wondered, “how many people have to die or get sick before they get up off the hands they’ve been sitting on?”
In response to these cases, the AIDS Healthcare Foundation began administering vaccines from three sites and has vaccinated 1500 people since Monday.
Across the nation, New York City is also concerned with meningitis. Early this year, the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene (DOHMH) discovered that the rate of invasive meningococcal disease in men who have sex with men was higher than it was in the rest of the adult male population. This led to a change in vaccine recommendations. The New York City DOHMH now recommends meningitis vaccinations not only for HIV-positive men who have sex with men (MSM), but “for men, regardless of HIV status, who regularly have intimate contact with other men met through a website, digital application (“App”), or at a bar or party.”
Experts are encouraging people to get vaccinated or to seek care if they think they may have been exposed. A map showing clinics offering the vaccine for free can be found here.