Officials Now Voice Alarm Over Meningitis

Mayor Michael Bloomberg, at a March 25 press conference in Bushwick, said he could not explain the city’s decision-making on a meningitis vaccination campaign. | GAY CITY NEWS

Mayor Michael Bloomberg, at a March 25 press conference in Bushwick, said he could not explain the city’s decision-making on a meningitis vaccination campaign. | GAY CITY NEWS

After saying for several months that it has the resources to address a meningitis outbreak among gay men in New York City, a senior official in the city’s health department told the New York Times that staff are “very scared” about the outbreak and are struggling to control it.

And in a March 25 press release, the state health department recommended that all sexually active gay and bisexual men statewide get vaccinated for the bug, noting the 22 cases and seven deaths in New York City since 2010 as well as a 23rd case in a man who lives outside the city, but spent “significant time” here.

“It’s been sort of marching through the community in a way that makes us very scared,” Dr. Jay Varma, a deputy commissioner, said in a March 21 Times story.

“We know there is clearly some kind of social-risk factor, being very socially active with people you’ve met either through online sites or parties,” Varma told the Times. “It’s another big challenge for us to identify how this disease is spreading.”

State vaccine recommendation for sexually active gay men, even as city fails to harness party promoters

Despite the alarm now being voiced by health officials, however, a dozen sex party promoters in New York have told Gay City News they have not been contacted to assist in the effort to reach at-risk men.

The city health department spent $68,000 in federal dollars on September 27 to buy 1,000 vaccine doses and $204,000 in city dollars to purchase another 3,000 doses on October 2. On October 16, Dr. Marcelle Layton, an assistant commissioner, told attendees at a Physicians’ Research Network meeting, “The estimate is about 10,000 that we’re aiming to vaccinate,” according to a video posted on the educational group’s website.

As of January 28, the department estimated that 4,022 people had received a first dose of the two-dose vaccine, though that was likely an undercount since reporting adult vaccinations is voluntary.

There have been four new meningitis cases since the start of 2013. Seventeen of the 22 cases occurred since the start of 2012.

In a March 25 email, a city health department spokesperson wrote that the agency had an “ample supply of vaccine” and “will continue to buy as much vaccine as is needed to meet demand.” This has been the agency’s posture consistently.

The spokesperson wrote, “There is sufficient vaccine for those who are at risk to be protected by vaccination. However, many who are at risk in this outbreak do not yet know they are at risk or do not believe that the risk is great enough to get vaccinated.”

Initially, the city health department recommended that sexually active, HIV-positive gay and bisexual men get vaccinated. It effectively expanded that recommendation to all sexually active gay and bisexual men, regardless of HIV status, in November and made that second recommendation explicit on March 6. The state health department has now further expanded the target population.

While the city health department is known to have advertised on some gay blogs and social networking sites, its campaign to urge men to get vaccinated has been limited in scope.

Asked how much the agency had spent on outreach, the spokesperson wrote, “We have not calculated our costs for what we have spent controlling this outbreak.”

In December, Dr. Gal Mayer, then the managing director of clinical services at the Callen-Lorde Community Health Center, was already critical of the city health department’s vaccine promotion efforts.

“Where is the public messaging?” he said. “Where are all the alerts for gay men to come in and see their provider? That’s what is needed at this point. If we really want to vaccinate 10,000 people, I think it’s time to step up the public messaging.”

Asked at a March 25 press conference why City Hall had not allocated new city dollars to the health department to use in launching an effective vaccine campaign, Mayor Michael Bloomberg said, “I guess you’ll have to talk to them. I don’t know what our policies are in terms of how we decided. I’ll have to talk to our commissioner of Health and Mental Hygiene and we’ll get back to you.”

What the city health department is not doing is reaching out to sex party promoters to ask about mounting vaccine efforts in their parties. Gay City News wrote to 25 promoters and received responses from 12 as of March 25. None of the 12 had heard from the city, though three said they would offer vaccinations.

Several of them have had HIV testing and other health services at their parties, working with private groups such as the Men’s Sexual Health Project at New York University, the Center for HIV Educational Studies & Training at Hunter College, and an outreach program at the APICHA Community Health Center, an AIDS group.

Lidell Jackson, who produces Jacks of Color, wrote that the city health department had not responded to him.

“They haven’t,” he wrote. “And I’ve indicated my interest in having them set up a confidential table at My J.O.C. Parties to do vaccinations, but I’ve heard nothing from them…So I seem to be ‘going up against brick walls’ at every turn.”