New York City health officials are pleading with Pride-goers to protect themselves against a new strain of meningitis that has already claimed the lives of seven of the 22 men it has infected in that state alone. The common denominator appears to be that those who contracted the bacteria were either HIV-positive or men who have sex with men.
Now, as Pride season approaches in Canada, there is concern that it might spread north.
The New York outbreak began in 2010, and it tapered off in late 2012. As the outbreak appeared to come in clusters, the New York Department of Health took the unusual step of recommending vaccinations for all men "regardless of HIV status, who regularly have intimate contact with other men met through a website, digital application (“App”), or at a bar or party." With an ambitious push to vaccinate those in the gay community, the outbreak appears to be under control.
Health Canada says it's monitoring the situation, noting that it does not appear that any Canadians have contracted the New York strain of the disease. It sent an alert to all the provinces in April, warning that the strain could hop the border. At present, though, a spokesperson says "the risk to Canadians is considered low." They underlined that, regardless of any outbreaks, Health Canada recommends that all HIV-positive people get vaccinated for meningitis, with booster shots every three to five years.
But Health Canada notes that the efficacy of the Menveo vaccine declines rapidly after the first year. And with no guidelines in place for those without mitigating factors — like HIV/AIDS — that means that most Canadians aren't protected.
With risk factors like "smoking, close living quarters, bar patronage and kissing," there's some concern that the spate of Pride festivals across Canada and the US this summer could spell bad news for the gay community.
The disease itself is hardly new to Canada. The Public Health Agency of Canada reports a couple of hundred of cases every year, with the last substantial outbreak occurring in 2001. That outbreak was due to an explosion of a specific type of the disease — known as serogroup C — which increased nearly sixfold in three years, due to eight different outbreaks. C strains are more than twice as deadly as the three other groups commonly found in Canada. A vaccination program got that outbreak under control. Meningitis C is now less common, with most cases reported coming from the other groups.
Preliminary data provided to Xtra by Health Canada shows that cases of meningitis went down last year. While they note that the average incidence level for the disease is about 0.5 per 100,000 — in other words, very rare — meningitis tends to hit communities or areas particularly hard. In 2001, meningitis hit three Ontario and Quebec elementary schools, as well as the gay community.
The outbreak in New York is also in that C group, but doctors are warning that it's an entirely new strain, and thus far it’s proven much more deadly.
Symptoms are initially flu-like but can quickly transform into something much more serious. Meningitis attacks the membranes around the spinal cord and brain. Normally, it's treatable and carries a relatively low death toll. But, during the last outbreak in Canada, many of the fatalities occurred within 48 hours of symptoms. For the strain that hit New York, the seven deaths happened 24 hours after symptoms appeared.