Los Angeles urges vaccines after gay men die of meningitis

Bacterial meningitis has killed three men who have sex with men (MSM) in Los Angeles, public health officials said Thursday, while five others have tested positive for invasive meningococcal disease.

Health officials are urging gay men who have HIV or multiple partners and men who have sex with men to get vaccinated against the invasive disease.

Meningococcal disease is a deadly infection that can spread through saliva or mucus from activities such as kissing, coughing, sharing drinks or cigarettes, or lengthy contact with an infected person.

"All HIV-positive MSM and all MSM, regardless of HIV status, who regularly have close or intimate contact with multiple partners, or who seek partners through the use of digital applications, particularly those who share cigarettes, marijuana or use illegal drugs, should visit their health provider to be vaccinated against invasive meningococcal disease," Dr. Jonathan E. Fielding, director of public health at the Los Angeles County Department of Public Health, said in a statement.

The health department is offering free vaccinations are being offered to those without health insurance.

The department however said the three men who died didn't have any direct contact with each other. The disease still is considered rare and sporadic and the department is shying away from declaring any outbreak in the gay community, authorities said.

Four of the eight people who came down with the illness had sex with other men and three were HIV positive. The three who died in February and March were 27 or 28 years old and two were HIV positive, according to the department.

Of the other five people who fell ill, four are out of the hospital and one is hospitalized but recovering.

Disease symptoms typically include high fever, stiff neck, altered mental status, skin rash, severe headache, low blood pressure, aversion to bright lights and generalized muscle pains. Onset may occur within five to 10 days after exposure, but the disease progresses rapidly, so immediate diagnosis and treatment with antibiotics is essential.

The agency was "insensitive" for failing to announce the deaths earlier, Michael Weinstein, executive director for the AIDS Healthcare Foundation, told the Los Angeles Daily News.

"We're the largest HIV/AIDS medical care provider in the nation, and they didn't tell us," said Weinstein, a critic who has called the health department a "bloated bureaucracy."

About a third of the 32 bacterial meningitis cases reported in the county since October 2012 involved men who had sex with men, the Daily News reported.

That population is most at risk right now, said Dr. Robert Bolan, medical director for the Los Angeles Gay and Lesbian Center.

However, the county health department is "paying attention" and acting "in a timely manner" by urging vaccinations for members of the gay community, he told the newspaper.

Bacterial meningitis infected 22 gay men, killing seven, in New York City between 2010 and last year.

However, Los Angeles County health officials have said the local cases aren't related.