Last year, a good friend who lives in New York City asked me if I recalled he had wanted to introduce me to a certain bartender. Of course I remember, I replied. Then the shocker, reminiscent of AIDS in the early ‘80s: My friend told me he suddenly died, but from meningitis. Kyle was only 32 years old. Then another shocker: My friend said bacterial meningitis is transmitted through kissing.
Meningitis, the Centers for Disease Control reports, “can spread through the exchange of respiratory and throat secretions.” That’s kissing. People make the mistake that the most common symptoms of meningitis (neck pain, high fever, and a rash) is the flu.
Let me share with you what The New York Times says about the NYC meningitis outbreak: “It is a variant of a disease that can go from a fever and headache to a galloping rash and then to death within hours — so quickly that some victims have been found dead in bed before they could even get to a doctor. In addition, 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.”
Since 2010, 22 men in New York City have become infected with the disease, and 7 died. More than half, 12 of the 22, were living with HIV. There’s a distinct possibility meningitis could develop into a major outbreak, NYC health officials warn, killing many more. So far this year, four men already are infected with meningitis. New York City’s health department is recommending vaccinations for men, regardless of HIV status, who regularly have intimate contact with other men. In December, San Francisco Health officials went as far as to recommend that gay men traveling to NYC get vaccinated.
Dr. Jay Varma, deputy commissioner for disease control at New York City’s health department, told The New York Times, “It’s been sort of marching through the community in a way that makes us very scared.”
I contacted the D.C. Department of Health and received the following statement from Dr. Saul Levin, Interim Director: “The District of Columbia Department of Health closely monitors meningitis cases in the District. While we have not seen an increase from meningitis, as a public health official and physician, I strongly recommend people living with HIV or those that travel to the New York area frequently consult with their physician regarding a meningitis vaccination. If you develop a headache, fever or a stiff neck please seeks medical attention immediately.”
Back in the early ‘80s before the Internet, health officials would rely on fliers, many posted in bars and clubs and men’s bathrooms, to inform the gay community about AIDS. But today it’s the Internet that people depend on to meet others.
Every gay or straight social dating website and app should assume some responsibility for the health of their customers. The social media outlets could reach thousands at little or no cost and great efficiency. They could start by posting instant pop-up “Health Alerts” and provide easy access links where they can find further health information. This would help save lives.