Meningitis outbreak prompts LA clinics to offer free vaccine

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Two area organizations that serve the gay community and those with HIV/AIDS are now offering the meningitis vaccine, following last week's announcement of an outbreak in Southern California.

As of Thursday, the AIDS Healthcare Foundation is offering the vaccine for free at its after-hours clinics, which are held at its regular treatment centers. AIDS Project Los Angeles is offering the vaccine for free at its health centers in Long Beach and Baldwin Hills.

The L.A. County departments of public health and social services are also offering the meningococcal vaccine at several clinics.

While meningitis is not yet widespread in Southern California, the disease is contagious, so "it's better to be safe than sorry, especially for people with compromised immune systems," says AIDS Project LA spokesman Mikel Wadewitz.

Since May, there have been nine confirmed cases of meningitis - one fatal - among Southern California men, most of whom were gay or bisexual, according to an alert issued last Thursday by state and county health officials. Four men were from Los Angeles County, four were from Long Beach (which has its own health agency) and one was from Orange County.

The alert recommends the meningococcal vaccine for all men who have sex with men, particularly those who regularly have intimate contact with multiple partners and share cigarettes or drugs. It stresses the importance of vaccination for those with HIV, since they're at increased risk of infection. 

Meningitis is spread through close contact with an infected person. People can contract it through kissing, sharing cigarettes or drugs and being in group settings – like dorms, jails or shelters – for long periods of time.

Symptoms usually occur within five days. They include high fever, stiff neck, skin rash, severe headache, low blood pressure, aversion to bright lights and generalized muscle pains. The infection can cause brain damage, hearing loss and death. It progresses quickly, so immediate diagnosis and treatment is imperative, health experts say. 

In 2013, L.A. County health officials issued a similar alert after eight people contracted meningitis and three of them died.