Three gay men sickened from meningitis in L.A. County have died, the Los Angeles County Department of Public Health said Thursday.
The department announced earlier this week that there have been eight cases of invasive meningococcal disease in the county so far this year. Four cases occurred in men who have sex with men. On Thursday, officials said three of them had died, officials said. The victims were 27 or 28.
Some of those sickened lived or socialized in West Hollywood and North Hollywood, officials said.
The county will provide free vaccinations for patients without health insurance, starting Thursday. Those interested can call 211 or visit the department's website to get a listing of provider clinics.
Invasive meningococcal disease stems from a rare bacterial infection that can spread to the blood, brain or spinal cord and can affect the entire body -- sometimes causing death.
It is spread by close exposure to sneezing or coughing or direct contact with saliva or nose mucus -- though it's less contagious than influenza, the health department said.
Activities associated with risk for the illness include smoking, close contact with an infected person such as kissing or sharing beverages or cigarettes, and living in group settings for prolonged periods.
Symptoms of the illness usually strike within five days of exposure to the bacteria, and may include a high fever, stiff neck, aversion to bright light and aches.
The bacterial strain most common in Los Angeles is covered by the current meningitis vaccine. After occurrences in recent months, students at Princeton University in New Jersey and UC Santa Barbara were offered access to another vaccine, not yet approved for use in the U.S., to prevent a different form of the disease.
[Updated 8:50 p.m. April 3: Robert Bolan, the medical director at the L.A. Gay & Lesbian Center, said there is cause for concern in the gay community because the infection rate is higher in men who have sex with men and especially higher in those who are HIV positive.
Bolan said it is unclear why the disease seems to affect gay men specifically, though the weakened immune systems of people who are HIV positive might make them more susceptible.
Of the four L.A. County cases reported among gay men, three involved men who were HIV positive, county health officials said.
"I think the important thing to understand is this is not an epidemic," Bolan said. "But there's a pretty strong signal that men who have sex with men, at least those who are HIV positive, are at increased risk for invasive meningococcal disease."
The deaths come less than a year after L.A. gay's community grappled with another meningitis scare.
Brett Shaad, a 33-year-old West Hollywood resident and attorney, contracted meningitis in April 2013 after attending a gathering of gay men in Palm Springs. He died days later.
The AIDS Healthcare Foundation responded by offering free meningitis vaccines. County health officials eventually offered the vaccine for low-income and uninsured residents.
West Hollywood Councilman John Duran said he hopes more specifics about the three deaths emerge. The men died at least a week ago, and Duran said he'd like to know why the county didn't announce it sooner.
"Three deaths in three months, it's a lot in one community," said Duran, who is running for L.A. County supervisor. "It's disproportionate to the numbers of gay men that are in the general population. It's a bigger tragedy that they're all young men in their 20s... It's like a bad dream, like a bad deja vu."]