Should gay men in Washington be vaccinated for meningitis?

SEATTLE -- Despite recent cases of bacterial meningitis among gay men in New York City and Los Angeles, public health officials are not recommending Seattle residents be vaccinated. But, one local doctor says there’s no reason not to get the meningitis vaccine.

Meningitis is an infection of the lining that covers the brain and spinal cord. The bacteria can be spread through contact with mucus or saliva by kissing, sex or sharing food, eating utensils, a drinking glass or a cigarette with an infected person.

While meningitis is rare, it requires immediate medical attention to prevent brain damage, hearing loss, or death.

An increasing number of people have been diagnosed with a unique strain of meningitis in recent months in New York City. All 23 of the infected were gay or bisexual men, and seven have died. The New York City Health Department has advised vaccination for gay men who have HIV or who regularly have intimate contact with other men met through a website, app or at a bar or party.

A West Hollywood man also died from meningitis last month, though health authorities report it was a different strain than the one in New York.

Still, the United States Centers for Disease Control is not recommending a mass vaccination of gay men at this time.

Seattle & King County Public Health officials report there has only been one case of meningitis in the state this year and say there is no evidence of increased incidence in Washington. State and local health departments are not recommending vaccination for gay men, even if they are traveling to New York City or Los Angeles.

Still, Dr. Vy Chu, who provides primary care to the local LGBT community at Capitol Hill Medical, says anyone who is concerned about meningitis should go ahead and get the vaccine, especially if they have intimate contact with a high number of people.

“There’s so little downside and risk to getting vaccinated against meningitis, and it’s such a devastating disease,” Chu said. “If you’re thinking about it at all, that peace of mind is worth getting it.”

The meningitis vaccine is currently recommended by the CDC for youth aged 11 to 18 and others at increased risk, such as college students entering dorms and military recruits.

But, Dr. Jeffrey Duchin, chief of epidemiology for Seattle & King County Public Health, said the vaccine is expensive (about $150) and does not last more than a couple years, so it is not worthwhile for Seattleites unless they plan to engage in promiscuous sex in New York.

“For most people outside of adolescence, the vaccine is not likely to provide any benefit,” Duchin said.

While he would not dissuade a patient from being vaccinated, Chu said there has been some overreaction to the meningitis “cluster” in New York.

“With HIV the response was very slow,” Chus said. “People have this fear that this is going to be the next big epidemic, but it’s not going to.”

In fact, Chu said members of the LGBT community should be more concerned about STDs.

“Put your energy into things that are a much greater risk and can be just as devastating,” he said.