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Caution advised after West Hollywood lawyer stricken with meningitis

'We don't want to panic people,' a city councilman says. 'But we learned 30 years ago the consequences of delay in the response to AIDS.'

April 13, 2013|By Ari Bloomekatz, Los Angeles Times
  • An emotional John Duran, a West Hollywood city councilman, talks about Brett Shaad, 33, a lawyer who contracted meningitis.
An emotional John Duran, a West Hollywood city councilman, talks about… (Irfan Khan / Los Angeles…)

A recently confirmed case of meningitis in Los Angeles County and a spate of others striking gay men in New York City have officials in West Hollywood warning residents to take precautions.

"We don't want to panic people," said West Hollywood City Councilman John Duran, who serves a community with a heavy gay and lesbian population. "But we learned 30 years ago the consequences of delay in the response to AIDS. We are sounding the alarm that sexually active gay men need to be aware that we have a strain of meningitis that is deadly on our hands."

Late in the day, the medical director of the Los Angeles Gay & Lesbian Center also called on county health officials to make the meningitis vaccine available free to any gay or bisexual man who wants it.


FOR THE RECORD:
An earlier version of this article, quoting West Hollywood City Councilman John Duran, incorrectly reported that a man who had contracted meningitis had died. A family spokeswoman said the man, Brett Shaad, has been declared brain dead but remained on life support Friday night.

During a midafternoon news conference at West Hollywood City Hall, a choked-up Duran identified the infected, gravely ill man as Brett Shaad, a 33-year-old lawyer.

Only a week or so ago, Duran said, he had seen the lawyer, whom he described as extremely fit. Officials said that over Easter weekend he had attended the White Party in Palm Springs, an annual gathering that draws 8,000 to 10,000 gay men from across the country. After returning, the man was hospitalized, his health rapidly declined and he was found to have meningitis.

While meningitis is not classified as a sexually transmitted disease, it can be transmitted through intimate encounters, including sexual activity.

But Duran added that "we don't know yet if we can make that connection between individuals at the White Party and the resident."

White Party founder Jeffrey Sanker issued a statement through his publicist: "My heart goes out to the parents and siblings [of the lawyer], as we have always regarded all our party participants as extended family.

"From what we all know to date, the origin of the case is inconclusive; nonetheless, like many large gatherings gay or straight, people are often in close intimate contact with each other. However, we have always been very proactive in distributing literature for the health and safety of our patrons so everyone can be educated and informed."

Health officials said they believe the outbreak in New York is circulating among men who have sex with men and that this particular strain may have been transmitted through intimate encounters. Why certain people become ill is not fully understood, officials said.

Earlier this week, L.A. County's top health officer said there were "apparently some similarities" between the case here and the especially deadly strain found in New York. That city has seen 22 such meningitis cases in recent years, including seven fatalities since 2010.

"But it's not identical," said Dr. Jonathan Fielding, director of the county Department of Public Health. Officials said that the gym where the local lawyer worked out — Equinox in West Hollywood — was contacted to inform members about the case, but that there was no need to panic.

Bacterial meningitis is a disease that can be treated with antibiotics if identified quickly. Symptoms include sudden fever, severe headache and sensitivity to light.

People who are in very close contact with someone who has meningitis are at higher risk of contracting the disease because it can be spread by kissing or coughing, though it is not as contagious as the common cold. There is a vaccine, but it is generally recommended only for certain populations, including adolescents.

ari.bloomekatz@latimes.com

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