Public Health Officials: NYC Meningitis Outbreak Has Not Spread to LA

MeningitisThere were concerns that after the recent meningitis deaths in Los Angeles that New York’s outbreak had spread, but public health officials in both cities say the strains are not connected.

NBC News reports:

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.

“Right now we do not have an outbreak of meningococcal disease in LA County,” Dr. Jonathan Fielding, director of Public Health for the Los Angeles County Health Department, told NBC, citing outbreak definition requirements from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Dr. Jay Varma, the New York City Deputy Commissioner for Disease Control in the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, however, is worried the outbreak is getting worse:

There were a total of thirteen known cases of bacterial meningitis among men last year (triple the total in 2011). But already in the first three months of 2013, four men have been hit, not including Shaad and others in Los Angeles.

“Normally people think of an outbreak as a lot of people getting sick at one point in time – but here the number of cases is much higher than we normally expect,” said Varma.

The rate of meningitis in gay men in New York City has spiked to 60 times higher than their straight counterparts. Last fall health officials advised vaccination for some HIV-positive men, but recently expanded the recommendation to include all gay men statewide who have “traveled to the City” and “met through an online website, digital application (“app”), or at a bar or party” since September 1, 2012.

While fear surrounding the spread of meningitis echoes that of the early years of HIV/AIDS, Dr. Mike Osterholm, the director of the University of Minnesota’s Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy, maintains that the two  are “very different.”

“With HIV/AIDS we never had the hope of eliminating it, we didn’t even know what was causing it initially. This, we know what is causing it. We have vaccines and antibiotics that can greatly reduce or eliminate carriage,” Osterholm said.

Both New York and Los Angeles are offering free vaccinations. Though infections have so far only affected gay men, as Osterholm notes “this has nothing to do with being gay”:

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….Varma warns that the outbreak will likely continue until at-risk men get vaccinated.

The CDC recommends that children and teenagers get vaccinated but immunity wanes, leaving most adults unprotected. To date an estimated 6,700 people have been vaccinated in New York since the start of the outbreak;1,182 people in March alone. Getting the vaccine “does not mean you are gay or that someone you know is gay,” said Anthony Fortenberry, the director of nursing at Callen-Lorde Community Health Center. “It is about protecting yourself.”

For a list of free vaccinations in New York click here and in Los Angeles click here.