Los Angeles County health officials on Friday again urged gay and bisexual men to get vaccinated against meningitis, as an outbreak that began last year continues to grow.
Twenty-nine people in the county have been diagnosed with meningitis since March 2016, with the latest case identified a few weeks ago. Earlier this year, one patient died from the infection.
Anyone can contract meningitis, which is transmitted through swapping saliva, like kissing or sharing drinks and cigarettes. It makes people fall suddenly ill and can cause swelling in the brain and spinal cord. The disease can leave people permanently deaf, with brain damage or without limbs. It can kill within a few hours.
Health officials think the current L.A. outbreak is rooted in the gay community because 10 of the 29 infected people in Los Angeles County were either gay or bisexual men, according to county data.
Many of the cases carry the same strain of meningococcus bacteria, known as serotype C, and have been linked through social connections, according to the health department.
There's no medical knowledge of why meningitis would spread more among gay and bisexual men. Yet over the past decade, gay communities in Chicago, New York, Berlin, Paris, Toronto and L.A. County have been disproportionately affected by the disease.
L.A. officials initially thought the uptick was caused by HIV-positive patients becoming infected because of weakened immune systems. But few in this latest outbreak have been HIV-positive, they say.
So they are recommending that all gay and bisexual men get vaccinated, especially considering the annual L.A. Pride Festival this weekend. The events begin Friday night and continue through Sunday.
The vaccine isn't typically recommended because meningitis is so rare — about 4,000 people contract the infection a year in the U.S. Instead, it is administered to specific groups considered high-risk, including teens, college students and military recruits.
L.A. County has distributed thousands of vaccines since the outbreak began. Free vaccines are available at several locations.
"The upcoming Pride festivities are a great time to remind those at risk for meningococcal disease to get vaccinated," Dr. Jeffrey Gunzenhauser, the county's interim health officer, said in a statement Friday. "Because this vaccine is highly effective against this disease, we want to make it as easily available as possible for those who need it."