A bacterial meningitis outbreak among gay and bisexual men in New York City that had raised fears of a new AIDS-type epidemic has subsided after an aggressive vaccination campaign, leaving city health officials cautiously optimistic that it has been contained.
The outbreak cast a pall over gay nightlife in the city, and raised fears among gay men traveling to and from New York that they might catch the casually transmissible and highly lethal disease. Twenty-two men have been infected and about a third of them — seven — have died since 2010, with the numbers accelerating last fall and early this year.
But the last case was in mid-February, the longest interval without a new case since January 2012. City health officials feared that the infection, which attacks the lining of the brain and spinal cord and can be transmitted through kissing and even sharing a glass, might flare during crowded gay pride events in late June. But that did not come to pass.
“We think that because we’ve had no cases in six months, we have to conclude that enough of the population has been vaccinated to provide protection at least for now,” Dr. Jay K. Varma, the city’s deputy commissioner of disease control, said this week. “Whether or not this provides protection for several years is something that we’ll have to see.”
At least 16,000 people have been vaccinated; an estimated 30,000 to 100,000 were believed to be at risk. Dr. Varma said the number of vaccinations was probably higher, but doctors are not required to report having given the vaccine, and the data come mainly from large medical practices and organizations like the Gay Men’s Health Crisis.
The infection spread among men who met at parties, bars, clubs and through Web sites and hookup apps like Grindr.
To combat the disease, the city conducted vaccination and public health campaigns in gay bars. But one of the most successful vaccinations campaigns was carried out by Dr. Demetre Daskalakis, a gay activist and now medical director of H.I.V. services at Mount Sinai Hospital, who gave free shots at bathhouses, after-hours sex clubs and private parties.
Dr. Daskalakis said on Tuesday that he hoped doctors would continue providing the vaccine to men at risk, a recommendation echoed by the health department in an update distributed to doctors this week. It is available at city-run clinics that provide immunizations and treatment for sexually transmitted diseases. Under a new state law the vaccine will also be available to adults through pharmacies beginning Oct. 29.
One challenge, health officials have said, is that some men who are at risk of getting the disease may not identify themselves as gay or bisexual. As a result, it is difficult to reach out to them through gay organizations and to get them to come forward for vaccinations.
The outbreak was caused by a unique strain of bacterial meningitis that attacked gay and bisexual men for reasons that remain mysterious but that Dr. Varma said the health department would continue to study through interviews, data and DNA sequencing of the bacteria.
“Unfortunately, we don’t really know the answer why some people get sick with this strain and others do not,” Dr. Varma said, adding that it can be carried in the mouth and nose of healthy people, whether gay or straight.
The New York Times