It was a day of marriage and meningitis.
Floating on a high from the Supreme Court’s decisions on DOMA and Prop 8 Wednesday morning, a crowd entered the Pride Center in Wilton Manors to get serious and learn about the meningitis outbreak that has infected gay men in New York City and Los Angeles.
Representatives from the Broward County Health Department, AIDS Healthcare Foundation, and the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene -- via phone -- participated in the panel to explain the basics of bacterial meningitis, the outbreak in the Big Apple, and details on the vaccination.
“I’m not a doctor, are any of you a doctor?” Kristofer Fegenbush, COO of the Pride Center, asked the crowd. With no hands raised, he explained that the panel was here to answer any questions for everyone to educate themselves on the disease.
Dr. Marah Lee explained that bacterial meningitis causes an inflammation of the covering of the brain and spinal cord. Symptoms kick in within 48 hours and is deadly without treatment. However, the difficulty lies in that many of the symptoms -- headaches, extreme fatigue, sore neck -- are similar to the flu.
“You can be dead in two days,” she said. “Don’t wait like you do the flu. It won’t go away.”
The disease is passed through saliva, so one can get the disease from sharing drinks, cigarettes, and French kissing.
Since 2010, 22 gay or bisexual men have contracted the illness in New York City and seven have died.
There is no reason for it to cluster among one population, which is what had officials concerned, said Molly Kratz, the special assistant to the deputy commissioner of Disease Control in New York City.
“We really couldn’t find an obvious trend,” she said.
To combat the problem, the New York City is offering free meningitis vaccines to those who feel they are at risk. In fact, one doctor, Demetre Daskalaki, has taken to sex clubs in the city to give out free vaccines. When a New York Times article write about him in May, the number of men getting the vaccine skyrocketed.
Today, more than 14,000 people have voluntarily gotten the vaccine, although Kratz thinks the number may be even higher. There have been no new cases since February 2013.
A smaller outbreak of three men in Los Angeles spread worry, as many people in South Florida travel to California and New York. AIDS Healthcare Foundation offers free vaccinations in LA. However, so far the coast is clear in South Florida, but the program will offer the shots should someone become infected, said Jason King of AHF.
“Today, we haven’t identified one single case in the MSM population in Broward,” said Patrick Jenkins, the epidemiology program manager at the Broward County Health Department.
Wesley Schultz attended the town hall to learn more about the outbreak and so he can help educate his neighbors and community.
“It was well organized. I liked the fact that somebody was on the telephone giving a direct conversation,” he said, although he added he wished there was more diversity in the groups on the panel.
Walter Dickey also attended the meeting and was happy with the results.
“I feel like I’m a little better informed about it,” he said. “It doesn’t like to me it’s a big concern in this area. But if it was, i certainly would .”
The vaccine varies from location to location, but on average costs $150 per dose. For those who are HIV positive, officials recommend that patients get two vaccines eight weeks apart.
In New York City, proof of residency is not required to get the vaccine, said Dr. Mark Misener of the New York City health department.
LifeWay, Inc. at 5353 N. Federal Highway Suite 301 will be hosting a vaccine day on June 29 starting at noon. Those who are interested in getting the vaccine should call 954-772-8554 so staff can make sure there are enough ordered.
Vaccines are also available at the Broward County Health Department and AIDS Healthcare Foundation. Again, call ahead of time so staff can order a vaccine. The manufacturer of the vaccine has a patient assistance program to help pay for the doses for those who qualify.