People line up in West Hollywood for free meningitis vaccinations offered… (Al Seib / Los Angeles Times )
In an effort to quash any fears of a patterned outbreak, Los Angeles County health officials said a fatal case of meningitis discovered earlier this month is not connected to any others across the country.
“Public Health has not identified any other cases of meningococcal disease associated with this patient, nor identified any linkage between this patient and cases being reported in other areas of the country,” according to a news release from the Department of Public Health.
Officials hope the report puts to rest questions about whether the death of a 33-year-old lawyer from West Hollywood, diagnosed with meningitis earlier this month, was connected to a deadly strain of the disease found over the last couple of years in New York City.
The outbreak in New York, primarily among gay men, has infected nearly two dozen people and killed seven in recent years. And the death of West Hollywood resident Brett Shaad, among others late last year, prompted concern among some health advocates that a possible outbreak could have started in L.A. County.
While some called those reports alarmist, West Hollywood City Councilman John Duran and the AIDS Healthcare Foundation pursued the issue aggressively. The AIDS group started offering free meningitis vaccines and called on the county to do the same -- as health officials eventually did for low-income and uninsured residents.
Duran said Monday that while the county’s results show there is no current outbreak, he wishes officials would be more proactive about the issue. He wants them to focus on prevention and continue offering free vaccines.
“Someone will die of meningitis in the next three months and it won’t be one of the 3,000” who were recently vaccinated, Duran said.
The county health department describes meningitis as “a rare infection of the lining of the brain and the spinal cord” that is “spread by very close exposure to sneezing and coughing or direct contact with” saliva or nasal mucus. While it is generally rare and harder to catch than the common cold, meningitis can be deadly.
While there can be quite a range from year to year, L.A. County averages 25 cases of meningitis annually, health officials said. In the news release, they said that “even with prompt treatment, the mortality rate is 10% to 15%.”
Symptoms may include a stiff neck, fever, severe headaches, an altered mental state and low blood pressure.
County officials also described how they came to their findings and said they first compared the strain of bacteria from the case in April to others in the county.
While they found that they were all part of a similar subgroup that included some similar cases of men who had a history of sexual contact with other men, they ultimately determined that “a preliminary reading of the genetic fingerprints ... shows it is not highly related to other cases in Los Angeles County, Southern California, or New York City.”
The L.A. Gay & Lesbian Center also issued a statement and said they were "relieved that the L.A. County Department of Public Health has determined the most recent case of meningitis is unrelated to earlier cases among gay men in New York and Los Angeles and that there is not a meningitis outbreak among gay/bi men here."
"We’re also pleased that DPH is on high alert and will advise us of any new cases so we can keep the community informed," said Jim Key of the L.A. Gay & Lesbian Center.
"Bacterial meningitis can be prevented," Key said. "Those who want to get vaccinated can get information about the shot's availability, and meningitis, on the center’s website: www.lagaycenter.org."