When meningitis claimed the lives of seven gay men in New York City, a soldier in the battle against the disease took to the Big Apple’s sex clubs.
Dr. Demetre Daskalakis, a young gay doctor specializing in infectious diseases, was armed with syringes full of a life-saving vaccine and is credited with vaccinating thousands of men against the outbreak.
“In my life I don't wear a white coat. I look like any 39-year-old gay man who walks around New York. When I went out to do vaccines I just looked like myself,” he said. “I wanted to be a part of controlling the outbreak... it was a very oddly familiar scenario of young men dying and people didn’t understand what was really going on, although in this case we did know what was going on and we knew how to prevent it.”
New York City’s health department was alarmed when 22 men in two years were infected with bacterial meningitis, a potentially lethal disease. Seven men died and 12 of those who contracted it were HIV positive. With no reason that any specific population should be more prone to the disease, the city amped up its recommendations that all men who have sex with men should get the vaccine, which was soon offered for free.
Bacterial meningitis is spread through saliva and causes inflammation of the spinal cord and brain, leading to severe headaches, fever, stiff neck and more severe neurological symptoms. Since the early symptoms are similar to a bad cold or flu, many victims were found dead in their beds as they attempted to sleep it off.
At the time, Daskalakis was working at NYU School of Medicine at Belleview -- he recently became the medical director of HIV services at Mt. Sinai Hospital. The doctor was already a fixture in seven sex clubs in the city where he offered HIV tests to patrons, as well as at the Gay Men’s Health Crisis. He proposed that they use the same locations to reach out to gay men to get the meningitis vaccine. The “powers that be,” including the city health department jumped on board.
“To me, it says a lot about the health department, about the fact that they really have an idea about the community. There were barriers at the beginning of doing this and then they really were a dream come true from the perspective of providing assistance and making it happen,” he said.
Where it Began
Daskalakis’s endeavors into medicine started long ago. As a toddler armed with a Fisher Price doctor’s kit, he would check guests’ lungs and heart using his plastic stethoscope.
“If they wouldn’t do it I would throw them out of the house,” he laughed. “So yes, I was persnickety and wanted to be a doctor from pretty much I can remember.”
As he grew older, he heard about the HIV/AIDS epidemic plaguing gay men in New York City, but as a youngster in Virginia he was removed from it.
“I remember my mom and I would watch ‘Dynasty’ and I remember when Rock Hudson was diagnosed. It was such a big deal and sort of all the controversy on him,” he said.At 17, Daskalakis moved to New York and attended Columbia University, where he was part of a group that organized a display of the famous AIDS Memorial Quilt in the mid-’90s. He was exposed to those battling the illness and others mourning the death of a loved one taken by the disease. That experience coupled with his interest in gay community health lead him to pursue a fellowship in infectious diseases at Massachusetts General Hospital’s Partners Healthcare Program.
Shots at the Club
After a typical doctor’s 24-hour day, Daskalakis took to sex clubs a few nights a week to vaccinate patrons, gifting them with a lollipop. The owners of the clubs were notified ahead of time and advertised the free vaccinations and made announcements throughout the night to remind guests that they could protect themselves. Rather than herding the guests who wanted a shot into another room, Daskalakis gave the vaccine out in the open. Some nights, his husband came along to help keep the process organized and calm.
“The goal is not to be threatening and so I just went out as a gay doctor who had access to the vaccine. I had lines of people who were getting vaccines in the field and we saw lines of people getting vaccines at GMHC. I mean it’s crazy; people really want this vaccine and I think providing it in a community friendly way has been the key.”
One evening, Daskalakis managed to vaccinate 70 people in two hours; the club had 150 people in it. Overall, he vaccinated up to 600 people at clubs and 1,400 at the Gay Men’s Health Crisis.
With cases waning, Daskalakis has spent less time in the field, especially with repeat clientele who have already been vaccinating visiting the venues. These days, he’s spending more time at the Gay Men’s Health Crisis. Plus, the word has gotten around in the community of where people can get their free vaccination. Those who require two doses, such as HIV patients, are being followed up on.
As for the city, health department officials are constantly keeping track of the meningitis cases and updating its recommendations for the vaccine. Eventually, it will go back to its normal guidelines of just college students or others who live in group facilities.
In his role as the medical director for HIV services at Mt. Sinai, Daskalakis hasn’t stopped his community outreach -- a big vaccination event is planned for Fire Island.
“Their goal was to stop this outbreak and frankly I think it’s almost over,” he told the Mirror in July. “We haven’t had a case in New York since February and I think part of that has to do with the amazing work that we were able to do with GMHC and through the hospital.”