2 min

Meningitis scare is over

Gay men's deaths 'suspicious,' so bar & bathhouse warnings issued

SALIVA. Hassle Free's Robert Trow says there was some panic in the community. Credit: Xtra files

Two gay men are dead, but the meningitis scare is over.

“Although we don’t know that it was related to bathhouse or sexual activity, it seemed suspicious so we thought it was best to err on the side of caution and get that message out,” says Dr Lori Kiefer, associate medical officer of health and medical specialist with Toronto Public Health.

The two died in mid-May, prompting Toronto Public Health’s city-wide warning to anyone who’d visited gay bars or bathhouses earlier this month.

“It’s difficult to do that [confirm], I understand they may have used a pseudonym [in the baths]. Because they’re dead, we can’t interview them. The information we have came from family and friends and led to us doing this.”

About a dozen health inspectors and other staff went through the Church St neighbourhood on May 18 with posters warning of the symptoms of meningitis – and a special hotline that ran for five days received “hundreds of calls.”

Church Street’s Hassle Free Clinic tossed out its regular hours of operation and stayed open extra hours, seeing 77 people (mostly men) concerned about meningitis. Many more, says Hassle Free’s Robert Trow, made appointments directly with their GPs.

Novack’s pharmacy ran out of anti-meningitis drugs and had to re-order. (The preventative drug Rifampin can briefly turn your pee and soft contact lenses red or orange and can’t be taken by anyone with liver disease or on protease inhibitors.)

Kiefer defends public health’s actions. “The response has been really, really good, they’ve been really happy. I don’t think it was a panic… that’s the most serious kind of meningitis.”

The deaths occurred in the week of May 14, but the 10-day incubation period is now past.

“We haven’t had any new cases, there were just the two,” says Kiefer, who adds that there’s a 15 percent death rate even with treatment.

“And the reason why we postered the neighborhood was because we had two cases that may have been related and there may have a source in the gay community, so to prevent further cases we went out and offered preventive treatment to people who were at risk as well as hopefully do some education about risk behaviours and how to protect yourself. Basically the risk is in transmission of saliva – which can be transmitted by kissing, or by sharing drinks, cigarettes, joints, food, whatever… but also by sharing a penis in a bathhouse. So if you’re having multiple partners or whatever in a short period of time, if there’s still saliva on someone’s dick and you put it in your mouth, then you’ve just been exposed to that person – so that’s why we did that.”

Kiefer left out sharing poppers – the fluids in the nose can also secrete the bacteria.

She refuses to identify the two men – even though it would have helped those worried about coming into contact with them. “I don’t believe I can confirm the names to you because that’s confidential health information that the health department doesn’t give out.”

Kiefer admits that the names could be publicized – with family permission.

On average, two or three Torontonians die of meningitis every year (out of some 25 cases a year, and there have been no other meningitis deaths in May, Kiefer confirms).

Hassle Free’s Trow says he’s pleased with Toronto Public Health. “They got in touch with us fairly soon… I think they were pretty good about it.”

Meningitis symptoms include fever, headache, vomiting, stiff neck, rash, drowsiness or confusion, convulsions or seizures.