THE BLOG
04/14/2013 10:56 am ET | Updated Feb 02, 2016

Fear and Misinformation: Meningitis and the LGBT Community

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Here is yellow journalism combined with bad politics: a young, otherwise healthy man from West Hollywood is in a coma from meningitis. Some West Hollywood politician made a public statement claiming he had died after contracting the disease at the White Party in Palm Springs. The young man's family said, "Brett remains on life support in the hospital. No conclusions have been drawn regarding when, or how, he may have contracted meningitis." Once some politician says it, however, the media laps it up. (Note: The young man did die a bit more than 24 hours after Mr. Duran's press conference.)

The politician, John Duran, said, "So even with an isolated case here, we need to sound the alarms, especially given the cases in New York."

According to an article in the New England Journal of Medicine, bacterial meningitis hits about 4,100 people per year with about 500 deaths. The disease killed seven people in New York City in the last two years. To date, the Los Angeles area has seen one case, of unknown origin, in the gay community.

The LA County health department area director, Dr. Maxine Liggins, said: "At this point, we cannot confirm or we don't know whether this case is related to the cases in New York City. Last year in LA County, we had about 13 cases of meningococcal disease and we are currently not having an outbreak in LA County." And, contrary to Duran's public pronouncement, health officials "had not yet determined if his case was connected to any of the cases in New York, and they were not recommending the vaccine for gay men."

The problem seems to be that some politicians exaggerate fears because it is what their species do. While the New York City Health Department was saying it was a good idea to get vaccinated, if you are in a high-risk group, Brooklyn Borough President Marty Markowitz was telling the public, "This disease is both potentially fatal and extremely contagious." The CDC, however, says, "most of the bacteria that cause meningitis are not as contagious as diseases like the common cold or the flu." "Extremely contagious" seems an overstatement. This is not the plot of some Hollywood film like such as Contagion.

Duran was, in some ways, even worse. He got teary eyed, falsely said the man had died, and while claiming he didn't "want to panic people," immediately invoked "the consequences of delay in the response to AIDS. We are sounding the alarm that sexually active gay men need to be aware that we have a strain of meningitis that is deadly on our hands." Duran falsely connects the disease to being gay and being sexually active -- thus giving a false impression. The two diseases are so far apart in risks and dangers they shouldn't be compared in the same breath. Meningitis, if caught in the early stages, can be treated with antibiotics.

ABC's Katie Moisse ran a story headlined, "Meningitis Spreading Via Anonymous Sex in NYC." The problem is that meningitis is not a sexually transmitted disease, nor do the sources Moisse cites claim it is.

Moisse claims that the disease "appears to be spreading through sexual encounters between men who meet through websites or Smartphone apps, or at bars or parties." She cites the NYC Health Department as making that claim. In fact, they did NOT make that claim. What they did say was some gay men in New York contracted meningitis and they recommend vaccinations for men "who regularly have intimate [which does not necessarily mean sexual] contact with other men met through a website, digital application, or at a bar or party." In other words, they recommend this group get vaccinations as a precaution, because their risk is higher. Ignored in the panic, is that the vaccine is also recommended for adolescents (both gay and straight).

WebMD describes it less salaciously: "Close contact -- not casual contact at work or school -- can spread the bacteria and viruses that cause meningitis. This includes kissing, coughing, or sneezing. Sharing eating utensils, glasses, food, or towels can also spread these bacteria and viruses."

This is important, as misinformation can give people a false sense of confidence. Someone who NEVER has "anonymous sex," or sex at all, can still contract meningitis. Tell the public meningitis spreads by anonymous sex and those who have symptoms, but know they didn't have sex, may neglect treatment until too late. Not only does this misinformation besmirch the gay community, it also gives some a false sense of security that can be deadly.

Out of 500 fatalities per year from this disease, only a handful have been among gay men.

Most victims are heterosexuals, many of whom were sexually inactive. Does anyone claim the disease is the result of "anonymous sex" among heterosexuals? I've not seen that happen.

We don't need politicians handing fodder to the Religious Right to smear the gay community. Meningitis is a problem, regardless of sexual orientation, and regardless of whether or not one is sexually active. Of course, that is not how the Religious Right will present it, and they can quote some well-meaning politicians to make their case.

What puts the gay community at risk from such diseases is not that they are gay, or that they may be sexually active, but that it IS a community. In this case, the risk factor is that the disease spreads mostly between people who know one another. Transmission requires one be in close proximity to the carrier. As the CDC says: "Infectious diseases tend to spread more quickly where larger groups of people gather together. College students living in dormitories and military personnel are at increased risk for meningococcal meningitis." However, don't expect breathless stories about the risks about being in a dormitory or the military -- it is far more acceptable to attach it to the gay community, even among pro-gay politicians.

Meningitis is a communicable disease. So is fear. Let's be rational and work to stop the one, without spreading the other.