The Los Angeles County Department of Public Health, criticized recently for not responding aggressively to an outbreak of meningitis among gay men, has just launched a campaign called “Stop Before You Swap” to educate gay men on how the disease is transmitted.
The campaign features a website that explains that “swapping spit (saliva) increases your risk for meningitis / meningococcal disease.” It notes that the disease can be transmitted by sharing drinks and cigarettes as well as a kiss with someone infected.
Jonathan Fielding, the county’s public health director, said the department was cognizant of the LA Pride parade and festival in early June, which attracts tens of thousands of gay men and lesbian and transgender people to West Hollywood each year
“Educating the public is always very important. We want to use as many ways to do that as it appropriate,” he said. “This is part of our broader campaign , particularly in advance of the Pride events.”
Fielding said West Hollywood and the Los Angeles gay community “is a very important part of the community and we’re working very hard to be responsive.”
The health department revealed in April that three young men, all ages 27 or 28 and with connections to West Hollywood or North Hollywood, had died of meningitis. It said that 11 of the 32 cases of meningitis in Los Angeles County in the 18 months leading up to April had involved gay men.
The health department was criticized by Michael Weinstein, president of the AIDS Healthcare Foundation, for not reporting the infections and deaths earlier. West Hollywood City Councilmember John Duran had criticized the health department last year for not acting more quickly to educate the gay community after the death of Brett Shaad, a young lawyer and real estate salesperson who lived in West Hollywood.
“I know that last year many people criticized me for being alarmist when there were a few deaths in a short period of time. But given that one half of the meningitis cases in LA this year are gay men, I remain convinced that we must alert our gay male community about the symptoms and causes of the disease along with the availability of a life saving vaccine, ” Duran said in response to news of the health department campaign. “I am glad to see the County is doing a public education campaign targeting gay men. I am surprised again that the only time I get informed about these efforts is through the media. The County continues to miss the boat by not partnering with the city or community based organizations to use us as tools to spread the message widely.”
Common symptoms of meningitis are headache, fever and a stiff neck and sometimes confusion and vomiting. Sepsis symptoms include a high fever, hot and flushed skin, an elevated heart rate, hyperventilation and low blood pressure. The bacteria can be spread by very close exposure to sneezing and coughing or direct contact with saliva or nose mucus. Symptoms usually occur within five days of exposure, but may present themselves as many as ten days after exposure. It often is fatal if not treated quickly, but vaccines are available from the health department and other health service providers to prevent it.
The health department began its “Stop Before You Swap” campaign yesterday with ad on the GayLife and GayHealth pages of WEHOville.com, which has the largest number of readers in West Hollywood, a city with a large gay population, and also is the largest website with local gay content in Los Angeles County.