Meningitis scare now a profound concern

April 25, 2013

Dr. Jonathon Fielding (c) led a meeting of community stakeholders with West Hollywood Council Member john Duran at his side. Alvaro Ballesteros sits on the left.

Saying that, "Public Health has not identified any other cases of meningococcal disease associated with” West Hollywood’s Brett Shaad or Los Angelino Rjay Spoon,” nor were the two deaths “highly related to other cases reported in Los Angeles County, Southern California, or New York City," LA County Department of Public Health officials set anxious minds about an “outbreak” of the dread disease to rest, but not all concerns.

Some of the attendees of that Friday afternoon confab to allay concerns over a meningitis "outbreak" Friday at Plummer Park.

Still, the community stakeholders and Public Health remain wary of large gatherings of people likely to share water bottles, cutlery or engage in deep kissing, such as during the month of June – Pride Month.

In a community stakeholder meeting on Friday at West Hollywood’s Plummer Park Community Center, the chief Public Health official and his team met with LGBT and HIV/AIDS organization heads to educate them on the findings of the week’s investigation into the sudden appearance of meningitis and to plot a path for educating the public.

Dr. Jonathon Fielding presided alongside WeHo council member John Duran over a 75 minute meeting with representatives from AIDS Healthcare Foundation (AHF), the LA Gay & Lesbian Center, The Wall-Las Memorias, Bienstar, County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky’s office, AIDS Project Los Angeles and the City of Los Angeles.

The Public Health team answered questions and salved fears that the few incidences of the disease that have arisen in the LA area since late last year were not connected to an outbreak centered in New York, nor were they connected to the White Party or even part of a “cluster” of incidents in the region.

Some of the attendees of that Friday afternoon confab to allay concerns over a meningitis "outbreak" Friday at Plummer Park.

Since November, there have been 13 cases of meningococcal meningitis reported in Los Angeles County, including four infections among gay men, two of which have been fatal, said Jonathan E. Fielding, the county director of public health.

Dr. Fielding explained that, until November 2012, the department did not do any sexual orientation screening, but that a retroactive look for indicators had been done and found that gay men in West Hollywood/Los Angeles were not spreading the illness in larger than usual numbers.

“Most of the meningitis we see,” he said, “is in family groups. Children, especially, spread the illness.” The bacteria can be spread by very close exposure to sneezing and coughing or direct contact with saliva or nose mucus. Symptoms can include fever, stiff neck, confusion, rash, severe headache, low blood pressure and general muscle pain.

Explaining that he understood the “level of concern” in the gay community, the illness should not be considered a “gay disease,” and while meningitis is infectious, it is not as contagious as flu or the common cold, he said.

For that reason, Dr. Fielding is not calling for widespread vaccinations, as has New York. New York City has suggested that all gay men who are sexually active get a vaccination for the illness; this came after seven deaths in the city among the gay male populace.

Some of the attendees of that Friday afternoon confab to allay concerns over a meningitis "outbreak" Friday at Plummer Park.

Of the four cases among gay men in Los Angeles County since November, three are shown to match the strain of meningitis that has infected about two dozen people, mostly gay men, and killed seven in New York in recent years, but that strain “does not have the same fingerprint,” meaning it is not identical.

AHF offered free vaccinations to the gay community at their clinics and well over 3,000 men took advantage of the offer. Last week the Department of Public Health also began providing low income and uninsured people the vaccination.

 Saying, “the big scare is that this disease can progress so quickly” and kill within just hours, John Duran called for a stepped up public education program on the symptoms and the do’s and don’ts to avoid infection. Dr. Fielding admitted that the department often thinks and speaks in “medical-ese,” and implored the community organizations and media to, “help to put language to this that gets through to people.”

The LA Gay & Lesbian Center and APLA will work on creating materials the DPH can disseminate inside LA County for Pride Month.

The average number of infections in LA County is 25; last year there were but 12, well below average, but so far this year 13 total.