Meningitis is killing gay men across the United States. If you’re not familiar with the disease, it’s a virus that invades your brain and spinal cord and causes headaches, neck stiffness, bouts of vomiting, and, occasionally, death. The disease has sickened 22 and killed seven NYC men over the last two years and 2 deaths in Los Angeles.
The New York City outbreak has been linked to parties, online websites or apps that men used to find other men for “close or intimate sexual contact,” according to health officials. But for more than half of the men sickened by meningitis, there was no evidence that the men had used any of these means to encounter other men, according to public health officials.
The specific strain linked to all the cases in New York City is part of serogroup C. It’s the same strain that first surfaced when a woman came down with meningitis in New York City back in 2003. The speed in which meningitis kills has complicated the search for people at risk.
In New York, “we’ve had several cases who have been actually found dead in their apartment before they’d even gone to see a medical provider. So that is, to us, absolutely terrifying,” Dr. Jay Varma, the New York City Deputy Commissioner for Disease Control in the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, told The Edge Boston in early March.
Last week, health officials in West Hollywood, Calif. warned members of the public to be alert after the death of Brett Shaad, 33, from meningitis infection. Three other cases of meningitis, including two deaths, had been identified among Los Angeles-area gay men since November.
Officials want people to realize meningitis is not a gay disease. According to the Centers of Disease Control, meningitis can be spread by swapping saliva through things like kissing and sharing drinks. At first, the meningitis outbreak in New York City seemed to infect only HIV positive men, but by March half of the men sickened were HIV negative. Three of the last five men sickened have died.
It is unclear why the current outbreak, so far, is affecting only gay men. Only two of the men knew each other and there is no evidence they infected each other, Varma said.
“Many of the outbreaks happen in settings where a lot of people live or socialize together, like college dorms or army barracks,” Dr. Mike Osterholm, the director of the University of Minnesota’s Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy, said. “When an outbreak occurs in one of these settings, health officials can track down everyone who lives in the setting, can vaccinate them and provide prophylactic medications.”
The best form of prevention is to get vaccinated. The Department of Health in New York City is recommending vaccination for all men living in New York City who have hooked up for sex on an app or at a bar or party, regardless of whether they are HIV-positive or HIV-negative, and regardless of which part of the city they live in.