While a virulent strain of meningitis has claimed the lives of three gay men in California since December and seven in New York since 2010, Vancouver health officials say there is no cause for alarm locally.
Brett Shaad, 33, of West Hollywood, California died April 13 after he was removed from life support.
The healthy, fit gay lawyer had been diagnosed with meningococcal meningitis April 10, after he began to feel sick two days earlier and went to hospital. By April 11, he was in a coma and was declared brain dead the next day.
It was widely reported in the media that Shaad had been at a white party in Palm Springs on March 30, although conflicting stories have since emerged.
On April 12, Los Angeles officials warned sexually active men who have sex with men to beware of the potentially fatal health threat.
On April 16, the Los Angeles AIDS Health Care Foundation announced it had identified two more deaths caused by meningitis in December. Rjay Spoon, a 30-year-old gay man from downtown Los Angeles, died of acute neisseria meningitidis, the meningococcus bacteria, on Dec 16, 2012, while a 30-year-old San Diego State University student who lived in Chula Vista died of the same disease Dec 10.
The foundation is now offering free vaccinations against meningitis.
The Los Angeles County Department of Health Services has announced that it too will provide free meningococcal vaccines for low-income and uninsured county residents.
Tests are also being conducted to see if the disease strain is similar to the meningococcal infections that circulated among gay men in New York City in 2010, infecting 22 people and resulting in seven deaths.
As recently as March 6, the New York City Health Department was still recommending vaccinations.
“Vaccinations are now advised for 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,” the New York department says.
Vancouver Coastal Health (VCHA) spokesperson Anna Marie D’Angelo tells Xtra there have been clusters and outbreaks of meningococcal group C over the years, with one in Vancouver eight years ago.
While it’s a good idea to vaccinate against everything, D’Angelo says, “there shouldn’t be any cause for alarm in the community.”
Dr Monika Naus, of the BC Centre for Disease Control, says she has not seen an increase in reported cases of meningococcal meningitis.
“If we had any inkling we had an increase in meningococcus in gay men in BC, we would know about it and we would begin vaccinating,” she says.
The US Centers for Disease Control (CDC) says the germs that cause bacterial meningitis can be contagious. Some bacteria can spread through the exchange of respiratory and throat secretions during activities such as kissing.
It is also spread through sharing food, drinks, utensils, water bottles, mouth guards or cigarettes, and through coughing or sneezing, according to VCHA.
The CDC and VCHA say symptoms include nausea, fever, vomiting, headache, stiff neck, increased sensitivity to light, confusion, trouble staying awake and seizures.
The CDC says bacterial meningitis is usually severe. While most people recover, it can cause serious complications, such as brain damage and hearing loss.