County criticized for meningitis response

LOS ANGELES — The AIDS Healthcare Foundation July 12 called for Los Angeles County’s top health officials to step down given what it called the department’s “woeful” response to an increase in meningitis cases that has disproportionately affected gay men.

“We believe that it’s time for a change in leadership,” foundation spokesman Ged Kenslea told the county Board of Supervisors.

Kenslea mentioned the county’s interim health officer, Dr. Jeffrey Gunzenhauser, by name and urged the board to begin a national search to replace him. Foundation officials have also asked that the Department of Public Health interim Director Cynthia Harding step down as well.

Dr. Jonathan Fielding retired in 2013 as the head of Department of Public Health and no permanent replacement has been hired. The foundation was also highly critical of Fielding during his tenure.

Supervisor Sheila Kuehl recommended a comprehensive campaign to reach the gay community and raise the rates of vaccination against the potentially fatal disease.

Eight new cases of invasive meningococcal disease were diagnosed in the county since May 1, bringing the number of cases this year to 12, according to the Department of Public Health. Given that total and cases in other jurisdictions, the state has declared an outbreak.

“We believe that AHF and the county have the same goals in mind which is to vaccinate as many people as possible,” Harding told the board.

Kuehl acknowledged that the county had been slow to respond to reported cases in 2013, but said she thought “public health did a good job of responding” to the latest cases.

Kenslea disagreed, pointing to the timing of the county’s June 24 announcement urging gay and bisexual men to get vaccinated against the disease.

He noted that it fell two weeks after Gay Pride events that drew thousands of gay men, missing a chance to significantly raise awareness.

“Meningitis is a known enemy but one that the county has not managed well,” Kenslea said, warning that the response did not bode well given the threat of other viruses, including Zika.

Most of the cases have affected self-identified gay men or men who have sex with men.

Meningitis vaccinations are recommended for all HIV-infected people and all gay/bisexual men — regardless of HIV status — “who regularly have close or intimate contact with multiple partners or who seek partners through digital applications, particularly those who share cigarettes/marijuana or use illegal drugs.”

Health officials said people also can help prevent the spread of the disease by not sharing drinks, utensils, food, toothbrushes, cigarettes, cigars or pipes; and not having multiple kissing partners.

County officials partnered last week with the Los Angeles LGBT Center to raise awareness on the issue.

“To clear up any ambiguity, we think the message should be simple. If you are a gay or bisexual man or a transgender individual, you should receive the meningococcal vaccination,” Robert Bolan, medical director of the Los Angeles LGBT Center, said at last week’s news conference.

Meningococcal disease can start with flu-like symptoms, then progress to high fever, headache, stiff neck, confusion and rash. The disease is fatal in about one in 10 patients.

The AIDS Health Foundation offers free vaccination at its four Los Angeles-area health centers in Hollywood, West Adams, Sherman Oaks and Long Beach.

A report back on the department’s plan to increase public awareness and access to the vaccine is expected in 45 days.


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