County Takes More Steps to Combat Largest Meningitis Outbreak in U.S. History

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The Orange County Health Care Agency is holding free vaccination clinics at two local bars frequented by gay men and at the LGBT Center of Orange County as part of its effort to combat an outbreak of meningitis across Southern California, which officials now say is the largest in United States history.

Authorities have identified a total of 24 cases that they associate with the outbreak in Los Angeles and Orange counties since March. Seven of those cases were in Orange County, with two resulting in death. The county typically averages five cases of meningococcal infection during an entire year.

Outbreaks of meningitis, an infection of the lining around the brain and spinal cord, are particularly dangerous because the disease progresses quickly and can become fatal if untreated within 24 to 48 hours. The bacteria can also cause a dangerous blood infection, or sepsis, which has an even higher mortality rate.

Gay men and men who have sex with other men (MSM) are particularly susceptible to infection, according to health officials, who said most of the infections in this outbreak have afflicted gay men.

Meningococcus bacteria are spread by exchanging saliva and spit in close and prolonged contact, such as through coughing or kissing, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.  Outbreaks often occur in college dorms and military barracks, and many schools require proof of vaccination prior to enrollment.

Although it’s unclear why gay or bisexual men have been particularly vulnerable to infection in recent outbreaks, public health officials have speculated that the use of online dating applications to find new sexual partners have contributed to its spread. Anonymous sex, having multiple sexual partners, sharing drinks and cigarettes are all potential risk factors, according to health officials.

Symptoms of an infection can be similar to the flu, such as a sudden onset of fever, headache and stiff neck. But the condition can quickly progress to include nausea, vomiting, increased sensitivity to light, confusion and a distinctive rash of red dots that don’t fade when pressure is applied to the skin.

Meningitis can be effectively prevented with a vaccine or through antibiotics, but time is of the essence, said Dr. Helene Calvet, an epidemiologist with the Health Care Agency, in an interview earlier this month with Voice of OC.

“Once it starts, the symptoms progress quickly, so the sooner you get antibiotics, the better chance you have of recovering,” Calvert said. “Long term, [meningitis] can cause hearing loss and brain damage. With the blood infection, you can get gangrene of the limbs and organ damage.”

State officials are recommending all MSMs in Los Angeles, Orange and San Diego counties, as well as the city of Long Beach, receive a vaccination.

The county will be hosting pop-up vaccination clinics at the LGBT Center of Orange County, the Velvet Lounge in Santa Ana, and Frat House, a gay bar in Garden Grove.

Dates and times for upcoming clinics are listed below:

Contact Thy Vo at tvo@voiceofoc.org or follow her on Twitter @thyanhvo.