Is Meningitis Outbreak Linked to Gay Social Apps?
"Diseases do not discriminate," resident HIV expert Dr. Demetre Daskalakis said in a recent interview with EDGE. "Meningococcal meningitis is not a gay disease." One thing is for sure --- meningitis is a serious public health concern. Symptoms come on quickly, and the disease can be fatal. A recent outbreak in New York City has public health officials in action to put a halt to its spread, which so far has been isolated to gay and bisexual men. The good news is that there is a vaccine that can stop it in its tracks.
Daskalakis has been a leader in the recent push to get free meningitis vaccines to people who may be at risk. Along with Dr. Frank Spinelli, he has been reaching out to the public and giving vaccines at the GMHC clinic and other locations. Both men are board members of GMHC, which has partnered with the NYC Department of Health and the Men’s Sexual Health Project to respond to the outbreak. Community outreach and education has been key to their success so far, and a good portion of that success can be pinned on social media.
Modern socialization through social media has become a big part of this outbreak. It has become part of the risk factor and part of the solution. Recent recommendations issued by the NYC Health Department in March 2013 included social media use as part of the risk factor. Men who have sex with men, who have met through an app, website, bar or party are all at risk. In response to the outbreak, GMHC launched a social media campaign to reach out to the public and spread the word that a vaccine was available -- and free.
Why are people so concerned? And why should you care? Meningitis can spread easily and is a serious, life-threatening illness. Since 2010, twenty-two men have been infected -- and all have been gay or bisexual. Many of them have met through apps, websites, bars or parties. Since this disease spreads so easily, it’s possible that modern socializing is changing the way that it’s moving through the community. Or it could be that these are just popular ways of connecting for today’s gay or bisexual man.
Like most diseases, meningococcal meningitis takes advantage of circumstances. It spreads through simple person-to-person contact. This type of meningitis comes from a bacteria that lives in many people’s throats. It spreads through coughs, kisses, sharing a glass, or just living in the same area. In the past, students living in dorms or shared housing were particularly vulnerable. Now that our socializing has changed through modern technology, our communities come together in different ways. That may be the simple answer to why officials are seeing a possible connection between social media and this outbreak.
It’s Circulating in Our Community, So Get Vaccinated
"This is not a gay disease, it’s a disease of a social network, like a dorm without walls," said Daskalakis. Being less than three feet from an infected person can put you into the danger zone. Whether the spread of the disease has been altered by social media use or not, the fact remains, it’s out there and it’s deadly. Daskalakis’ advice? "It’s circulating in our community so get vaccinated."
If you have any of the symptoms -- sudden fever, headache, stiff neck -- be sure to get medical attention immediately. Better yet, prevent that by getting vaccinated and spreading the word to your friends and community about the outbreak.
Putting social media to good use can be very effective. The good news is that the GMHC campaign has paid off in steady numbers at the clinic. When EDGE spoke to Daskalakis, the clinic was just reaching 1,500 doses given and are sure to be past that number by now. Anyone who is at risk can be vaccinated. You do not have to be gay, bisexual, or male. Daskalakis told EDGE, "Some transmen have asked me, what is the risk for me? The same, if you have sex with men."
If people who are at risk get vaccinated, they do more than protect themselves. They protect the community as well. It’s an easy step to take that can make a profound difference. Person by person, the vaccination campaign is making progress.
"More and more people we approach have been vaccinated," Daskalakis said. That’s good news.
The effect of the vaccine isn’t permanent. It can lose strength over time. If you are HIV-positive, you will need two shots instead of one, given eight weeks apart. Daskalakis said that revisiting the need for a vaccine in about four and a half years is a good idea, because a booster can be needed at around five years. There aren’t many medical conditions that can prevent someone from getting this vaccine. The risk-to-benefit ratio suggests that, as Daskalakis said, "This is a good thing to get. If you’re a man who has sex with men and you’re socializing in New York City, it’s probably a good idea to get one."
If you have a doctor, talk to him or her about the vaccine and get it as part of your regular medical care. To find a Health Dept. Clinic near you where you can get a vaccine, use the NYC Dept. of Health Site Locator.
Free vaccines are also available by appointment at the GMHC Center for HIV Prevention (224 West 29th Street, between 7th & 8th Avenues). You must sign up in advance!
Sign up to get vaccinated at GMHC’s Main Office, 446 West 33rd Street, 7th floor (between 9th & 10th Avenues)