This year, four men have come down with meningitis in New York City, bringing the number of infections to 22 and the death toll to seven since 2010, and similar cases have appeared in West Hollywood, California. How worried should we be?
Neisseria meningitidis, one of the varieties of bacteria that causes meningitis. Photo via the Centers for Disease Control
Last December, my friend Michael stopped me before we left his apartment in Paris. He was moving back to Brooklyn the following week and had received an urgent message from his friend who lived there: some gay men had died from a new strain of meningitis, a nasty bug that invades your brain and spinal cord and causes headaches, neck stiffness, bouts of vomiting, and, occasionally, death. In San Francisco, the government was warning gay men to get vaccinated if they planned to travel to New York City, especially Brooklyn.
We weren’t too worried—this wasn’t the 80s, when the authorities turned a blind eye to the AIDS epidemic and dismissed it as a “gay disease.” If the New York City Department of Health knew there was a potentially deadly plague sweeping the city, they’d surely shoot the bugger in the butt before it grew into a gay-killing monster.
Months later, the monster is still alive. Four more men have fallen ill in New York City, bringing the number of infections to 22 and the death toll to seven since 2010, and similar cases have appeared in West Hollywood, California. Just last Saturday, Brett Shaad, a 33-year-old lawyer, died of meningitis after slipping into a coma—he’s one of 13 men in LA who’ve been killed by the disease in the past 15 months. (It's unknown how many of these men were gay.)
City officials in New York seem sufficiently freaked out about this. Jay Varma, deputy commissioner for disease control for the NYC Department of Health, told the New York Times that this new strain of meningitis is “marching through the community in a way that makes us very scared.” He also warned that online hookup culture is helping infections spread: “We know there is clearly some kind of social-risk factor, being very socially active with people you’ve met either through online sites or parties.” (Read: Grindr and Manhunt.) The Department of Health, after initially only recommending meningitis vaccinations for HIV-positive men and gay residents in northern Brooklyn, revised their position last month and said that all men in the city who plan to hook up with other men should get vaccinated. The next day, the Gay Men’s Health Crisis began offering free vaccines. Their statement echoed the DOH’s belief that this strain of meningitis is particularly dangerous for those who meet for anonymous sex through websites and smartphone apps. Here’s who they said should get vaccinated:
“Any gay man or MSM [man who has sex with men] who is at least 18 years of age, regardless of HIV status, and has had intimate contact with a man they met through a website (Manhunt, Adam 4 Adam, etc.), digital application (GRINDR, SCRUFF, etc.), a bar, or a party since September 1, 2012, or plan on having such contact in the future.”
This statement leaves out the fact that meningitis is neither exclusive to the gay community nor spread exclusively through sex. According to the Centers of Disease Control, meningitis can be spread by swapping saliva through things like kissing and sharing drinks, which 12-year-olds do every day without using sex apps. Several meningitis victims contracted the illness via dudes they probably met on Grindr, but they also have probably shared drinks or food with heterosexuals. Meningitis isn’t exclusive to gays and treating it as a “gay disease,” as AIDS was treated in the 80s and early 90s, is surely counterproductive and possibly dangerous.
All the same, it might be a good idea to be a little bit worried about a deadly strain of bacteria that, so far, is disproportionately affecting gay men. In LA, however, officials don’t seem quite as concerned as their New York counterparts. Maxine Liggins of the LA Department of Health warned residents to watch for signs of meningitis at a press conference, but said, pointedly, “Currently, we do not have an outbreak going on.” John Duran, a city councilman from West Hollywood and one of the few openly HIV-positive politicians in America, isn’t so sanguine and has publicly urged the city to offer more resources to gay residents.
“It feels very similar to the story that unfolded in New York City," Councilman Duran told me over the phone. "It wasn’t until seven deaths [occurred] that the Department of Health recommended all gay men in all five boroughs get vaccinated.”
“When I asked over the weekend if there had been any other meningitis deaths in the gay community, I was told [Shaad’s] was the only one—this wasn’t true,” Duran said, noting that Rijay Spoon, a 30-year-old real estate agent, was killed by meningitis in December, a fact that was only publicized this week. “The county has not been forthcoming with giving us the information we would need to alert not only the gay and lesbian community, but the community at large.”
On Tuesday, the AIDS Healthcare Foundation stepped in to make up for Los Angeles’s failure to act, offering free vaccinations to gay Angelinos. The foundation released a statement a day later saying it was “dismayed” at the city’s “indifference” to the meningitis cases—and noting that the two strains of bacteria causing infections in NYC and LA were 85 percent similar.
The response to the meningitis deaths has been mixed. On Tuesday, Out magazine published an editorial that urged readers to “relax” and “get a vaccination if you're really worried.” And Brett Shaad’s brother Brian has been critical of Duran’s alarmist stance, saying in a Facebook note that the councilman made “sensationalist and erroneous public statements.”
But Duran has stood his ground. “I know there have been critics in the internet world and gay communities about the manner in which I sounded the alarm,” he said, “but given how savage this infection is—we have gay men dying in 40 hours [after being infected]—then it’s really nothing to monkey around with and second-guess.”
Though Duran definitely did get some facts wrong—he initially said that Shaad contracted the disease at the White Party, a major gay event in LA—other voices in the gay and HIV-positive communities agree that word about this deadly strain of meningitis needs to spread far and wide.
For instance, Michael Broder, a blogger for the Huffington Post’s Gay Voices vertical, encouraged his readers to list information about the meningitis outbreak and vaccines in Grindr profiles. Via email, he told me, “I was struck by a comment in a New York Times article that said, ‘Many men who are at risk may not identify themselves as either gay or bisexual, even though they are having sex with other men, health officials said. So it is hard to reach out to them through gay organizations, and it is hard to get them to come forward to be vaccinated.’ My thought was, well, why not reach out to them through the apps and websites that they are using to hook up?”
As a survivor the AIDS epidemic, Broder worries about the way the gay community has handled the meningitis outbreak. “I feel that in the past 30 years, the LGBT community has become complacent, thinking there is always going to be some organization to fight for their rights, protect their health,” he said. “I believe we need to rekindle that spirit of activism, not just to spread the word about the meningitis outbreak, but to reverse the alarming resurgence of new HIV infections among gay men, especially among young gay men, and most especially among young gay men of color.”
At the very least, let's be aware of meningitis and try to make sure no one else dies of this thing—we've got enough to worry about.
Here’s where you can find more information about meningitis:
For vaccines in Los Angeles: aidshealth.org
For vaccines in New York visit the Gay Men’s Health Crisis (446 West 33rd Street, 7th floor) on these dates:
Wednesday, April 24, 6:00 PM to 8:00 PM
Friday April 26, 10:00 AM to 12:00 PM
Wednesday, May 1, 6:00 PM to 8:00 PM
Friday May 3, 10:00 AM to 12:00 PM
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