Gay men constituted a third of the 32 cases of meningitis in Los Angeles County in the past 18 months, according to the Los Angeles County Department of Public Health.
Five of those 11 gay men have died, including three young men with ties to West Hollywood and North Hollywood who died earlier this year.
The Health Department disclosed this week that it had identified eight cases of meningitis in the past three months, three involving gay men ages 27 and 28, each of whom has died, and one involving a gay man who is 50 years old.
Dr. Rachel Civen, the Health Department’s medical epidemiologist, said that 10 of the 11 cases involving gay men — including the three young men who died earlier this year — could have been prevented if the men had been vaccinated against invasive meningococcal disease. Infection with another version of the bacteria cannot be prevented with a vaccine readily available in the United States. Civen said that version, known as the B strain, accounts for an average of 25 percent of the cases in the United States.
Meningitis has long been considered a Third World disease. But there have been several dramatic outbreaks in the United States in recent years. An outbreak of the B strain at Princeton University last spring and at the University of California, Santa Barbara last winter, prompted the federal Centers for Disease Control to permit use of a vaccine called Bexsero, which is approved for use in Europe, Canada and Australia but not yet in the United States. More than 20 gay men in New York City were infected with the vaccine-preventable strain A in 2012 and 2013, with a third of them dying.
Speaking of the eight cases in the past three months, Civen said meningitis is “an extremely rare disease. This is rather striking.”
But Civen cautioned that the cases do not suggest an epidemic.
“We are not in an outbreak situation,” she said. “The numbers don’t suggest that.”
Nevertheless, Civen urged all men who have sex with other men to get vaccinated. WEHOville has published a list of places where one can get the vaccine. A list of symptoms of the disease is available at the Meningitis Research Foundation website.
The Public Health Department has been criticized for not revealing this week that three of the four gay men infected had died. WEHOville discovered the deaths in a call to the Health Department seeking more information.
Michael Weinstein, president of the AIDS Healthcare Foundation, also said he was upset that the Health Department knew about the incidents among gay men for two months before making that public. “They don’t understand our community. They are just derelict,” he said. “It’s institutionalized homophobia.”
Weinstein said the the Health Department as yet has not supplied AHF or the LA Gay and Lesbian Center, both major health services providers for gay men, with the meningitis vaccine nor briefed them about the situation.
The revelation of the infections and the deaths is sparking a level of concern similar to that last spring, when it was revealed that Brett Shaad, 33, a young gay West Hollywood resident, had died of meningitis. AHF offered free vaccinations against the disease then. Both Weinstein and West Hollywood City Councilmember John Duran were critical of the Health Department, saying it had been slow to respond to Shaad’s death.