LA Faces Deadly Meningitis Spike Among MSM
Following a frightening spike of meningitis among men who have sex with men (MSM) in New York City last year, the Los Angeles County Department of Public Health is now urging MSM to get vaccinated. Four MSM have been infected since the beginning of the year, three have died, and two of them were HIV-positive.
"I think the important thing to understand is this is not an epidemic," said Robert Bolan, the medical director at the L.A. Gay & Lesbian Center, in a statement. "But there's a pretty strong signal that men who have sex with men, at least those who are HIV-positive, are at increased risk for invasive meningococcal disease."
Bolan said it is unclear why the disease seems to affect men who have sex with men at a higher rate, though the weakened immune systems of people who are HIV-positive might make them more susceptible.
This is the second time in as many years that Los Angeles has suffered a spike of Invasive Meningococcal Disease (IMD). In October 2012, the Health Department looked at 32 cases, and discovered that 11 of those patients were MSM and 4 were HIV-positive. This is a disproportionate rate of infection for the area, and mirrors similar situations in New York City and Chicago.
It has led the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to conclude that MSM are at a higher risk for meningococcal disease and to speculate that the reason is because a larger proportion of men in our community are HIV-positive.
Bolan said that if you are an MSM in L.A., either HIV-positive or not, you should strongly consider getting vaccinated, especially since meningitis can be fatal. The vaccine is well tolerated and is covered by most insurance plans.
He also noted that although not all strains of bacteria that cause IMD are dangerous, some people can carry the organism for prolonged periods with no symptoms, and spread it to others. The more who carry it, the more likely it will infect susceptible individuals.
This is why the health department has warned those who seek partners through mobile apps like Grindr are at increased risk. IMD isn’t an STI, but it is spread through kissing, sharing drinks or joints, coughing and sneezing. It occurs in spaces where large groups of people congregate in close quarters for prolonged periods of time, such as dance parties where people are sharing water bottles.
It can also affect very young people, and people with compromised immune systems from HIV. Symptoms include fever, severe headache and a stiff neck, sensitivity to light, vomiting and sometimes a blotchy dark skin rash. Meningitis is treatable with antibiotics if it’s caught early.
If you feel like you have been exposed, seek immediate treatment. And if you fall into the risk groups outlined above, strongly consider getting vaccinated.
"I believe it is biologically quite plausible that gay and bisexual men may indeed be at greater risk of exposure to -- and transmission of this organism -- than the general population," said Block. "Anecdotally, our community is more physically demonstrative at all ages with one another (hugging, kissing, and even deep kissing) than heterosexual populations."
To learn more about meningitis, visit www.cdc.gov/meningicoccal/ The Center, as well as local health clinics, are now offering free vaccinations. To schedule an appointment, call 323-993-7500 or visit http://publichealth.lacounty.gov/