In a quote that’s going to raise some eyebrows, Dr. Jay Varma, the deputy commissioner for disease control in New York City’s Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, told NBC News that those attending the city’s upcoming Gay Pride celebration should consider getting vaccinated for a (relatively) new and deadly outbreak of meningitis.
More than one million people are expected to attend New York City’s Gay Pride festivities this year during the last weekend in June.
First the quote that Varma gave NBC, then a bit of background on the meningitis story.
“It would be reasonable for people traveling to New York City and participating in the events to talk to their doctors about whether or not they might benefit from vaccinations,” Dr. Jay Varma, deputy commissioner for disease control in the city’s Department of Health and Mental Hygiene told NBCNews.com.
Varma sounds like he’s hedging, but this kind of hedging has been typical for the advisories that have been issued surrounding a particularly deadly strain of meningitis that has been targeting gay men, many with HIV, in the New York City area since 2010. Meaning, this advisory is no less strong than pervious ones.
I’d written about this issue a good deal before. Basically, for the past several years, a number of gay men in New York City have contracted a particularly deadly strain of meningitis. While normal meningitis kills 1 in 5 people it infects, this strain kills 1 in 3. And while the overall numbers of those infected sound small, according to disease experts, the numbers are troublingly high, and disconcertingly persistent. On that last point, meningitis outbreaks tend to go away within a few days to a few weeks. In this case, it’s been going on for several years.
Concern grew even further when several cases of meningitis showed up among gay men in Los Angeles too.
I did a long interview with an epidemiologist at the Centers for Disease Control, Dr. Thomas Clark, about the recent meningitis outbreak. In that interview, I get into the details of who should consider getting vaccinated, how (and how well) the vaccine works, how the disease is transmitted (via saliva from one person transmitted to the mouth of another), why gay people seem to be getting it (it’s not targeting them per se, but there are various reasons gay people might be more susceptible this time around), who the disease normally targets (college dorms and prisons), and more. Rather than rehash all of that, please seem my earlier post.
One point I will make again about the disease is that it’s not something that’s easily spread. You won’t get it from being near someone who sneezes. You may, however, get it from someone coughing in your face, talking in your face and accidentally spitting, French kissing, etc. The disease is passed by exchanging fluids in the mouth. And you won’t get it simply by working alongside something at the office, but your chances are much higher if you live with a roommate who has the disease. So there are a lot of important details that I get into in my other post.
Now back to the NYC health advisor. The city and state had previously warned that any gay man who lives in or is visiting NYC, and who is sexually active, non-monogamous, and frequenting bars, parties, and online dating sites and apps, should consider getting vaccinated. The problem is that that same warning naturally applies to anyone visiting Gay Pride in NYC. Well, or at least it applies to gay men – there hasn’t been a warning to heterosexuals yet, that I know of (because this particular variant of the disease hasn’t been spreading there). But whether or not you’re talking about every Pride attendee – one million of them – or only the gay male ones (easily several hundred thousand), that’s an awful lot of vaccines. And while New Yorkers can get the vaccines for free, those of us in many other cities are less likely (mine cost me around $165 here in DC, and my insurance didn’t cover it).
At this point, all you can do is inform people. Please do read my meningitis fact sheet for all the background on the disease and whether you should get vaccinated, wherever you like.