LA County developing meningitis vaccination campaign

Listen to story

Download this story 0MB

Local health officials want to boost meningitis vaccination levels among gay and bisexual men, amid a disease outbreak in Southern California that has disproportionately sickened men who have sex with men.

So far this year, L.A. County has reported 13 cases of meningitis; seven were among men who have sex with men. All of the patients survived.

Officials acknowledge getting more men vaccinated will be challenging since many people don't know they're at risk for the disease.

On Tuesday, the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors adopted a motion directing the county health department to create a comprehensive meningitis vaccination, information and outreach campaign.

County health officials say it's difficult to estimate meningococcal vaccination rates in adults because the vaccine is not routinely recommended for all adults. But Supervisor Sheila Kuehl, who introduced the motion, says too few men at risk of contracting meningitis have been vaccinated.

As part of the campaign, health officials will work with LGBT community leaders to determine the best ways to communicate the need for vaccination and to reach people at risk for the disease, according to Dr. Jeffrey Gunzenhauser, interim health officer for the county public health department.

Officials will also develop new strategies and tools to help health care providers identify those at risk of the disease and advocate for the vaccine, he said.

A major obstacle to increasing vaccination rates, though, "is that many individuals do not perceive themselves at risk, especially as the disease is very rare, and they may not be aware the risk is on-going," Gunzenhauser said.

Symptoms of meningitis usually occur within five days. They include high fever, stiff neck, skin rash, severe headache, low blood pressure, sensitivity 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. 

Meningitis is spread through close contact with infected people. People can contract it through kissing, coughing or sneezing, or sharing cigarettes or drugs. It also spreads among people in close group settings, like dorms, jails or shelters.

Gunzenhauser said some people might not realize these behaviors put them at risk for meningitis. Others might have less experience discussing disease risks with doctors.

Additionally, he says, “some young people’s perceived sense of invulnerability may lead them to deny that they are at risk for this severe infection."

Health experts are recommending the meningitis vaccine for gay and bisexual men who have close or intimate contact with multiple partners, those who seek partners through digital apps, and those who share cigarettes, marijuana or use illegal drugs. All HIV-positive people should also be vaccinated against meningitis.

Orange County has reported three cases of the disease; one case was fatal. County officials are not releasing the number of cases among gay men, due to the small number of cases, but said this population continues to be disproportionately affected.