Understanding the meningitis strain that killed three gay L.A. men

Published: April 4, 2014

The deaths of three gay men who contracted meningitis have sparked concern in Los Angeles’ gay community. Here are some basic questions and answers about the disease.

What is this form of meningitis?
Invasive meningococcal disease stems from a rare bacterial infection that can spread to the blood, brain or spinal cord and can affect the entire body, sometimes causing death.
It is spread by close exposure to sneezing or coughing or direct contact with saliva or nose mucus, though it’s less contagious than influenza, the health department said.
Activities associated with risk for the illness include smoking, close contact with an infected person such as kissing or sharing beverages or cigarettes, and living in group settings for prolonged periods.
Symptoms usually strike within five days of exposure to the bacteria and may include a high fever, stiff neck, aversion to bright light and aches.
The bacterial strain most common in Los Angeles is covered by the current meningitis vaccine.
Why are gay men affected?
Dr. Robert Bolan, medical director at the L.A. Gay & Lesbian Center, said there was cause for concern in the gay community because the infection rate is higher in men who have sex with men and especially in those who are HIV-positive.
Bolan said it was unclear why the disease seems to affect gay men specifically, though the weakened immune systems of people who are HIV-positive might make them more susceptible.
Of the four Los Angeles County cases reported among gay men, three involved patients who were HIV-positive, county health officials said.
What are health officials recommending?
The Los Angeles County Department of Public Health began providing free vaccinations for people without health insurance Thursday. It recommended that gay and bisexual men receive the vaccination.
What do we know about those men who died?
The health department announced this week that there have been eight cases of invasive meningococcal disease in the county so far this year. Of those, four occurred in men who had sex with men. Officials said Thursday that three of them died and that the victims were ages 27 or 28.
The department said some of the infected men lived or socialized in the West Hollywood and North Hollywood areas but were not more specific.
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