Meningitis Vaccination Effort Aimed At Gay Men07:52
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Allen Smith, 21, from West Hollywood, Calif., gets a free vaccine against bacterial meningitis at the AIDS Healthcare Foundation in West Hollywood, Calif., Monday, April 15, 2013. (Damian Dovarganes/AP)
Allen Smith, 21, from West Hollywood, Calif., gets a free vaccine against bacterial meningitis at the AIDS Healthcare Foundation in West Hollywood, Calif., Monday, April 15, 2013. (Damian Dovarganes/AP)

There have been 22 cases in the past three years of a deadly new strain of meningitis that has spread in New York's gay, bisexual and MSM (men who have sex with men) communities.

Seven of the men who contracted the illness died.

The judgment of whether they are having anonymous sex is less important than the fact that we’ve protected such a large number of them from this infection.

Dr. Demetre Daskalakis

Meningitis can be spread by sneezing, coughing, sharing utensils or kissing. Often, there are reports of meningitis outbreaks in college dorms or army barracks.

But this particular strain has circulated exclusively among men who have sex with men.

Dr. Demetre Daskalakis, an HIV specialist who is administering meningitis shots through the community health organization Gay Men’s Health Crisis (GMHC), said the community of “men who have sex with men are effectively a dorm or an army barracks without walls.”

New York's health department has partnered with gay community organizations to launch an aggressive campaign to get men who have sex with men access to meningitis vaccinations. The health department has advised “men who have regular and intimate contact with men” — whether through websites, gay bars and clubs, or hook up apps like Grindr — to get the vaccination.

When reports of the first deaths from meningitis began, comparisons to the early years of the AIDS epidemic were made in the mainstream press and within the gay community.

Like the AIDS epidemic of the 1980s, a moral color became attached to the behaviors of men who engaged in anonymous, sexual activity with multiple partners, even though meningitis is not a sexually transmitted disease.

“When you uncouple judgment of behavior and just look at bare cold science and fact, if you vaccinate people at risk, you will prevent infection," Daskalakis said. “The judgment of whether they are having anonymous sex is less important than the fact that we’ve protected such a large number of them from this infection."

The most susceptible men are those who are highly social in the gay community but don’t want to be identified as gay or bisexual. They are disconnected from community news, and are the hardest to reach through public service announcements.

For this reason, Daskalakis goes to gay bars and after hours clubs to administer shots, where men often go to have some degree of anonymity.

“Meningitis has made a big splash in the gay press, but if you’re not looking at the gay press because you’re afraid someone is going to look over your shoulder ... putting [the vaccinations] in an environment you feel safe is the right thing to do," he said.

Guest:

  • Dr. Demetre Daskalakis, an HIV specialist who is administering meningitis shots through the community health organization Gay Men’s Health Crisis (GMHC). He tweets @DrDemetre.

This segment aired on July 4, 2013.

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