April 17, 2013 | by Michael K. Lavers
D.C. health officials quiet meningitis fears
Saul Levin, gay news, Washington Blade

Dr. Saul Levin (Washington Blade photo by Michael Key)

D.C. health officials maintain they have not seen an increase in meningitis cases amid growing concerns over a potential epidemic in New York City.

“The District of Columbia Department of Health closely monitors meningitis cases in the District,” Dr. Saul Levin, interim director of the D.C. Department of Health, said in a statement. “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.”

Levin’s statement came after the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene noted four new cases of meningitis among men who have sex with men have been reported since the beginning of the year. The DOHMH said 22 meningitis cases have been reported in the five boroughs since 2010 with seven of them fatal.

New York City officials recommended MSM who “regularly have intimate contact with other men” they met online, through an app or at a bar or party receive a meningitis vaccine. The New York State Department of Health on March 25 expanded the list of those whom they said should receive the vaccine to include MSM with HIV/AIDS and those who have engaged in the aforementioned activities since Sept. 1, 2012.

“The City Council is working with the Health Department to make sure that New Yorkers know how to protect themselves from invasive meningococcal disease,” New York City Council Speaker Christine Quinn said. “While the rise in cases of the disease commonly known as meningitis is concerning, particularly for men who are HIV-positive or who have sex with men, vaccines and treatments are available.”

GMHC last month offered two free meningitis vaccine clinics with the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene. It also echoed city health officials’ recommendations that any MSM of any HIV status who is at least 18 years old and has had intimate contact with a man since last September (or plan to have such interactions in the future) should get vaccinated.

Ray Martins, chief medical officer of Whitman-Walker Health, told the Washington Blade his organization typically doesn’t stock the meningitis vaccine because it is not commonly used outside of those who need to have it before they attend college.

Whitman-Walker can order it and receive it the next day for anyone who requests it. Health insurance companies typically cover the vaccine, but it costs between $100-$150 for those who are uninsured.

“We haven’t encouraged a vaccine at all,” Martins said. “There have been a number of personal patients at Whitman-Walker who’ve requested it.”

Headaches, fever and a stiff neck are the most common symptoms associated with meningitis. It is spread through respiratory droplets or oral secretions, and the incubation period is typically between three and seven days.

“[If you’ve] shared a cup with someone, you’d be at high risk or if you coughed within three feet of someone for a long period of time you’d be at risk,” Martins said. “People in the same household, roommates or intimate sexual contact are those who are typically more at risk.”

Martins spoke with the Blade three days after Brett Shaad, an attorney from West Hollywood, Calif., died from meningitis at a Los Angeles hospital.

His best friend, Cory B. Savage, denied media reports that Shaad attended the annual White Party in Palm Springs before he developed meningitis symptoms. He also strongly criticized West Hollywood City Councilman John Duran’s comments during a Friday press conference that he said suggested the disease is “a gay disease.”

“Everyone is treated for meningitis when they go to college, so this is not a new bacteria,” Savage told the Blade. “This is something that’s very commonly known.”

Martins echoed this message.

“It’s not a gay disease,” he said. “It just happens to be spreading in the gay community.”

Michael K. Lavers has been a staff writer for the Washington Blade since May 2012. The passage of Maryland's same-sex marriage law, the HIV/AIDS epidemic, the burgeoning LGBT rights movement in Latin America and the consecration of gay New Hampshire Bishop V. Gene Robinson are among the many stories he has covered since his career began in 2002. Follow Michael

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