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Health officials were slow to reveal meningitis deaths, advocates say

HIV - AIDSDiseases and IllnessesZev YaroslavskyDon Knabe

Advocates from health organizations and the gay community criticized Los Angeles County officials Tuesday over their response to a recent cluster of meningitis cases that have led to the deaths of three young men.

The county's Department of Public Health announced last week that there have been eight cases this year of invasive meningococcal disease -- a serious and sometimes fatal illness that stems from a rare bacterial infection. It is spread by close exposure to someone sneezing or coughing or by direct contact with saliva or nose mucus.

Four of the eight cases occurred in men who have sex with men, and three of them were HIV-positive. 

The county is offering free vaccinations against the disease to patients without health insurance at five clinics, with extended hours through April 11.

Advocates said not enough outreach had been done to high-risk populations and non-English speakers, and they were incensed that an initial public statement put out by the department about the eight cases did not mention that three of the patients had died.

"I'm worried that the county has not done enough to protect the people of Los Angeles County," Leonardo Martinez, who identified himself as HIV positive, told the Board of Supervisors at their meeting Tuesday.

The AIDS Healthcare Foundation, a nonprofit provider of HIV prevention and treatment services, has begun offering meningitis vaccinations at its clinic in Hollywood. Foundation staff members said the county should pick up some of the costs of those vaccines and should work with other providers to get more people vaccinated.

"Gay people's health has been historically and very negatively impacted by government's inaction and lack of acknowledgment," said Whitney Engeran-Crodova, director of the foundation's public health division.

Public health director Jonathan Fielding said in an interview that department staff had been scrambling to get the news release out quickly and the omission of the deaths was "just an inadvertent thing." The deaths were included in information the department sent to medical providers, he said.

"I'm actually proud of the response of our department. I think we've been responsive, we've been timely, and I think we've been sensitive to the concerns of getting information out in a timely manner," he told the board.

Some of the supervisors chided the department for not communicating the information about the deaths more quickly. 

"The issue of deaths is an extremely important issue, an oversight that wasn't communicated to the public," Supervisor Don Knabe said. "Once that happens, there's credibility issues, there's panic, there's rumors, all those kinds of things."

Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky said in an interview that he thought the department had generally done a good job in responding to the meningitis cases, but should have disclosed the deaths right away.

"The problem the department has is it's run by a medical doctor, and they base their decisions on science and not public relations," he said.

[Updated at 5:37 p.m.: Yaroslavsky added, "We have a very solid team of people when it comes to disease control. When it comes to disseminating information to the public, they could use a little help."]

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abby.sewell@latimes.com

Twitter: @sewella

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