After the seventh death from bacterial meningitis in New York City this year, health experts are working to assure the public that there is no evidence of a national epidemic within the gay male community.
The most recent victim was Brett Shaad, a 33-year-old Sacramento native who lived in West Hollywood; he was declared brain dead on April 12. He had allegedly gone to the “White Party,” a gathering in Palm Springs that was attended by approximately 10,000 gay men two weeks previous. However, no reports have come in that other attendees have also come down with the disease. Symptoms usually appear 3-7 days after exposure.
There have been thirteen reported cases of bacterial meningitis in gay men in New York this year, seven of whom died, but health experts are refuting claims that there is a budding epidemic amongst gay males. Though the disease can be transmitted through intercourse, it can also be passed on by kissing, and it is mainly spread through prolonged close contact (for example, being on the same airplane), or actions such as sharing silverware.
According to the CDC, the disease is usually severe. It is fatal in 10-15% of cases, with a further 11-20% suffering neurological damage such as mental retardation, loss of sight, or loss of hearing.
The first symptom tends to be fever, which is quickly followed by severe headache, increased sensitivity to light, a rash, and neck stiffness; nausea, vomiting, and confusion are also common. Many people who contract bacterial meningitis are asymptomatic, meaning they aren’t themselves ill, but unknowing carriers of the disease.
Experts stress that this can be prevented with vaccinations, and people who know or suspect they have been exposed to bacterial meningitis should strongly consider getting vaccinated against it if they haven’t been already. One course (2-3 doses) of the meningococcal vaccine, usually given during childhood, is currently believed to be sufficient for life.
The diagnosis of bacterial meningitis is made by analyzing samples of blood or cerebrospinal fluid, and being treated as soon as possible is crucial to avoid death or permanent injury. Most at risk are infants, the elderly, and those with compromised immune systems; due to the nature of the disease, those new to living in communal housing such as college dorms are at additional risk for infection.