Officials find no meningitis link between L.A. and New York cases

People line up for free meningitis vaccinations at the AIDS Healthcare Foundation in West Hollywood on April 15.
(Al Seib, Los Angeles Times)

In an effort to quash any fears of a patterned outbreak, Los Angeles County health officials said a fatal case of meningitis found this month is not connected to any others across the country.

“Public Health has not identified any other cases of meningococcal disease associated with this patient, nor identified any linkage between this patient and cases being reported in other areas of the country,” according to a news release from the Department of Public Health.


Officials hope the report puts to rest questions about whether the death of a 33-year-old lawyer from West Hollywood, diagnosed with meningitis this month, was connected to a strain of the disease found over the last couple of years in New York City.

The outbreak of a particular strain in New York, primarily among gay men, has infected nearly two dozen people and killed seven. And the death of West Hollywood resident Brett Shaad this year and other cases last year prompted concern among some health advocates that a possible outbreak could have started in L.A. County.

While some called those reports alarmist, West Hollywood City Councilman John Duran and the AIDS Healthcare Foundation pursued the issue aggressively. The organization started offering free meningitis vaccines and called on the county to do the same. Health officials eventually did so for low-income and uninsured residents.

Duran said Monday that although the county’s results show there is no current outbreak, he wishes officials would be more proactive about the issue. He wants them to focus on prevention and continue offering free vaccines.

“Someone will die of meningitis in the next three months and it won’t be one of the 3,000" who were recently vaccinated, Duran said.

The L.A. Gay & Lesbian Center also issued a statement Monday, saying that it was “relieved” the county had “determined the most recent case of meningitis is unrelated to earlier cases among gay men in New York and Los Angeles and that there is no outbreak among gay/bi men here.”

“We’re also pleased that DPH is on high alert and will advise us of any new cases so we can keep the community informed,” spokesman Jim Key said.

The county health department describes meningitis as “a rare infection of the lining of the brain and the spinal cord” that is “spread by very close exposure to sneezing and coughing or direct contact with” saliva or nasal mucus. The disease is generally rare and harder to catch than the common cold but can be deadly.

L.A. County averages about 25 cases of meningitis annually, health officials said. In the news release, they said that “even with prompt treatment, the mortality rate is 10% to 15%.”

Symptoms may include a stiff neck, fever, severe headaches, an altered mental state and low blood pressure.

County officials also described how they came to their findings and said they first compared the strain of bacteria from the case in April to others in the county.

Though they found that some of the recent cases in L.A. County were all part of a sub grouping that included some similar cases of men who had a history of sexual contact with other men, officials ultimately determined that “a preliminary reading of the genetic fingerprints … shows it is not highly related to other cases in Los Angeles County, Southern California, or New York City.”