Two weeks ago my good friend Kyle died from invasive meningococcal disease, commonly known as meningitis. He was 32. Kyle died not from the meningitis outbreak linked to tainted medicine that is dominating the news, but from a different meningitis outbreak right here in New York City that is spread through intimate contact.
Kyle was full of life and love. He loved Tennessee Williams and volleyball. He believed in true love and monogamy. He was loyal, generous, sassy, and smart. Kyle was beautiful, both inside and out.
As far as I know, Kyle didn't have private health insurance, so when he first got sick with a fever, he made the unfortunate decision, as so many without insurance have to make every day, to "tough it out" rather than go to the emergency room or pay out of pocket for a doctor's visit. It didn't occur to him that he might have meningitis, or that his life might be at risk.
Meningitis is a tricky disease. It can overwhelm a person's nervous system in a matter of days. Many people mistake the most common symptoms of meningitis (neck pain, high fever, and a rash) for a flu. But unlike a flu, a person who gets meningitis needs immediate hospitalization and treatment with strong antibiotics such as Ciprofloxacin (Cipro).
There have been four cases of meningitis in New York City in the past month alone, an alarming increase in the rate of transmission over the past year. HIV-positive, sexually active men with multiple partners are most at risk, but anyone, HIV-positive or HIV-negative, straight or gay, with or without insurance, can get the disease.
The good news, if there is any, is that we have a vaccine for meningitis, and it is relatively easy to produce and administer. Had Kyle gone to the doctor sooner, he could have easily been treated, and he might have recovered. When it comes to meningitis, it matters to act quickly and decisively.
The more people get vaccinated, the better our chances of preventing the spread of the disease and protecting those in our community who are most vulnerable. The NYC Department of Health is urging anyone who is HIV-positive and has had sexual contact with another man whom he met through a website or app or at a bar or party since September to discuss getting the meningitis vaccine with his primary health-care provider. The city's public hospitals say they will cover the co-pay of anyone who sees his provider for the purpose of getting the vaccine. The Health Department is also providing vaccines free of charge at clinics around the city for anyone who, like Kyle, may not have health insurance in the first place. (Click here for a list of places offering the vaccine free of charge.)
The NYC Department of Health has come under some criticism lately for a video it produced that uses fear to persuade people to "wear a condom" and actually reinforces stigma against those who are HIV-positive. Let's just say they can do better and leave it at that.
I have spoken to the Department of Health, and this time they are trying hard to make sure they work with people within the gay community to get ahead of the outbreak and provide messaging that balances the need to fulfill their public health mission with more sensitivity to the many issues facing our community. They are reaching out to bloggers and those of us who run dating websites and apps and utilizing social media to spread their message. With vaccines and co-pays subsidized, no one else will have to worry about access to life-saving medications simply because, like Kyle, they lack insurance.
Anyone who believes he or she has the symptoms of meningitis should seek medical attention immediately. Of course, don't be a hypochondriac about it. Stay calm but alert. See a doctor right away if you show any of the symptoms and suspect you may have been exposed.