West Hollywood Meningitis: It's Not An Epidemic, So Why the Media Panic?

Sometimes, when it comes to health news, you get responsible reporting

Sometimes, though, you get hysteria

Case in point: Brett Shaad, a 33-year old West Hollywood man who died of bacterial meningitis on April 13. Shaad’s death has been widely reported in the past few days, in local and national news outlets (2,010 stories in Google News), and on social media. 

Many news reports have drawn connections between his death and meningitis cases among gay men in New York City. Others have mentioned the White Party a large gay circuit party held in Palm Springs March 27-29 that Shaad is reported to have attended as a possible place of transmission. 

Conclusion logically drawn from these news reports, and from the politicians who fuel them: Brett Shaad got meningitis by having anonymous sex at the White Party with an infected person from New York City. 

Before you delete the hookup apps off your iPhone, cancel your membership at the local Equinox Gym that Shaad frequented, or flee West Hollywood altogether, though, let’s get the facts straight: 

1. There is absolutely NO EVIDENCE whatsoever that Shaad got meningitis from anonymous sexual activity, or unprotected sexual activity, or even highly protected sexual activity with a person wrapped in several layers of durable latex. Meningitis is not a sexually transmitted disease. It is spread through close contact with an infected person, sometimes through kissing, sometimes sneezing or coughing. It's less contagious than the flu or the common cold, according to the Centers for Disease Control. 

2. This isn't an epidemic. It's one case in Los Angeles. It's 22 cases among gay men in New York in the last three years. To put that into context, there were 4,000 incidences of bacterial meningitis in the United States last year.

3. Given the incubation period of meningitis, the date of Shaad's death, and the date of the White Party, it's highly unlikely that he got meningitis at the White Party.

Given this information, then, which is readily available to all sorts of folks including the news media, why the sudden rush to judgment? Why, without knowing any facts whatsoever beyond the tragic death of one man in LA and a few men in New York, would media figures make this in to an "outbreak," an "epidemic," and a "crisis"?

You'd almost think they had some earlier, unconnected event in mind. 

And so you get news outlets including LGBTQ ones drawing connections that are unsupported by the facts, drawing parallels that don't exist, drawing lessons that aren't valid. You get West Hollywood Councilman John Duran warning patrons of Shaad's gym to go to the doctor immediately to get tested for meningitis, and comparing what's happened to the early days of the AIDS Crisis. And you get the old trolls on the religious right, smacking their lips and rubbing their hands together, pleased to have yet another piece of evidence that gay sex is one-way ticket to despair and pestilence. 

If it sounds familiar, it's because it is

Manufactured narratives are good for whipping up ratings, votes, and prejudices. They're not good for public health or for grieving families. What are good are reasonable precautions and suspending judgment until the facts are known.

LA-based folks who think they may be at risk for bacterial meningitis can get more information on getting vaccinated here.

Important Update: Brett Shaad’s brother has confirmed that Mr. Shaad did not attend the White Party, as originally was reported. West Hollywood Councilman John Duran has since apologized to the family.