Meningitis Headlines

Left Field by Patricia Nell Warren

Conservative media coverage trots out old fears, even in the face of facts

It’s always illuminating to see what the news media do with HIV/AIDS stories. I’ve found it challenging to untangle some conflicting reports about the so-called outbreak of bacterial meningitis happening in New York City. As I write this, the total number of cases evidently stands at twelve, with four having died and one individual still in critical care. On September 27, the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene put out a press release that mentioned four cases in just four recent weeks, with one death. Then DOHMH put out another notice about twelve cases since 2010, including four deaths. Many of the news stories identify all the cases as gay men, with eight of them said to be HIV-positive.

With meningitis already long identified as a serious threat to HIV-positives, because of their weakened immune system, this new outbreak has caused concern.

There are several kinds of meningitis, a life-threatening condition where the lining of the brain and spinal cord have become infected. There is fungal meningitis—as in the unrelated epidemic across the country, being spread by a pharmaceutical treatment, a spinal injection for back pain, that became contaminated with a fungus. Then there are several types of viral meningitis, including those sparked by intestinal infections and mosquito bites. According to the DOHMH, 450 cases of viral meningitis hit New York City in 2003 alone. There is no treatment for viral meningitis, but it is seldom fatal. But the most deadly type is bacterial meningitis, caused by the bacteria Neisseria meningitidis. Fortunately, bacterial meningitis can be treated with antibiotics if it is caught in time, and its spread from person to person can be reduced.

Little personal detail is available on most of these New York cases. But one case has a face, thanks to a 10/09 commentary by blogger Carl Sandler in the Huffington Post. He writes about the death of his thirty-two-year-old gay male friend named Kyle (last name not given) who was one of the HIV-positives. Sandler revealed that Kyle had no health insurance, so when he came down with a high fever, he decided to try “toughing it out” rather than seek medical help. The unfortunate result was Kyle’s death.

As I dug into this outbreak story, I noticed a number of different spins put on it by the media. Especially the conservative media who had all picked up a syndicated report with the rather inflammatory headline, “Meningitis Scare Emerges, Targeting NYC’s Gay Men.”

First of all, some news stories stated that the NYC cases occurred among “gay and bi men,” while the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene was quite clear in stating that the outbreak is occurring among “men who have sex with men.” There is a difference. The accepted definition of MSM includes an individual who doesn’t identify openly as gay or bi. The most recent figures from the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene show a total of 3,782 new HIV diagnoses in the city. Of these, 2,878 cases are males, with 1,659 of these termed “MSM” by the NY Dept. of Health. Recent surveillance rates show that MSM infections are high among black men. All in all, this confusion of the two terms shows that after twenty years of the epidemic, some people in the media are still confused about—or deliberately refusing to deal with—this basic terminology of transmission.

The Dept. of Public Health is making anti-meningitis vaccines available for HIV-positive MSMs at designated clinics around the city and urging them to get vaccinated without delay if they have had recent sexual contact. The Dept. explains that HIV-positive individuals are far more vulnerable to the effects of bacterial meningitis than individuals who are HIV-negative. For negative men, they do not recommend getting the vaccine.

In addition, the DOH is at pains to say that this New York City spike in bacterial meningitis is not related to the epidemic of fungal meningitis cases resulting from spinal injections. They say that the current bacterial meningitis spike has been “tied to sexual transmission.” Do they know this for a fact? All the medical literature on bacterial meningitis emphasizes that the organism can just as easily be transmitted non-sexually in intimate living situations where people might be sharing dishes, cigarettes, joints, glasses, etc.

Further confusion is revealed by older stories detailing that part of the NYC outbreak which happened from December 2010 into January 2011. According to the New York Daily News, it involved three males and three females. The three women died. More details came from ABC World News: “Two Manhattan women in their 20s and a Staten Island woman in her 50s died from the illness in the past month. The six patients ranged in age, from 4 to 74, but health officials said that strains of the infection were different and not likely linked.” There was no mention of “scary” gay or MSM in connection with these older stories. Even the conservative Daily News avoided mentioning or stigmatizing any minority group. It merely headlined, “ Meningitis is sweeping through New York; disease claims three people, says city Health Department.”

By contrast, the current news stories imply that there are twelve cases among sexually active gay men since 2010. Whereas in fact, three of those older cases may have been women; at least one of the males was a child, and at least one was very elderly (seventy-four). Doing the math, you have to subtract the six 2010–2011 cases. Meaning that the current “gay men/MSM being targeted”—the cluster that DOHMH is talking about—is just four individuals, not twelve. The AP, CBS News and The Wall Street Journal may have been among the few mainstream media who got it right, saying that the new cases numbered four, and all four were HIV-positive men.

My conclusion: six cases, including three women and at least one child, were not viewed as“scary,” whereas four gay male/MSM cases are “scary.” Why?

I detect a right-wing spin on meningitis stories that spotlight “gay men” without mentioning non-gay men or females. Probably the most far-flung syndicated story was HealthDay’s “Another Meningitis Scare Emerges.” It was written by HealthDay reporter Alan Mozes. Mozes ignored the MSM tag by NYC DOHMH and said that “gay men” were being “targeted.” He also apparently overlooked the three females among the 2010–2011 cases, and stated that eight of the twelve cases were HIV-positive gay men. His story was picked up by Fox News and quite a number of Fox affiliates across the country, as well as America Now.

Isn’t this spin an example of the conservative insistence that gay men must continue to be stigmatized as the most deadly vectors of infectious disease? Is Fox apparently unable to admit that women, or non-gay men who have sex with other men, might also be at risk? Indeed, at least one conservative politician is out there insisting that it’s virtually impossible for heterosexuals to transmit HIV—possibly implying that it’s also virtually impossible for heterosexuals to transmit bacterial meningitis as well.

No doubt about it—bacterial meningitis itself is scary. In Health & Fitness Online, Jane Brody describes it with stark clarity: “Bacterial meningitis is not a common disease, striking about 1 person in 100,000 in the United States each year. But for several reasons, it causes alarm far out of proportion to the number of people affected. First, it is highly contagious, spread by direct droplet infection—a cough or sneeze, a kiss or even a drink from a contaminated cup, although not by casual contact or breathing the air where an infected person has been. Second, it has a high fatality rate—up to fifteen percent despite treatment and as much as fifty percent without treatment—and can rapidly assume a fatal course that cannot be reversed by antibiotics and other treatments. Third, many who survive it are left with lifelong health problems, like learning disabilities, mental retardation, hearing loss, kidney failure, and limb amputations.”

But it doesn’t help to hype this disease in the direction of political scare-mongering—especially the kind that goes on targeting gay and bi men without factual basis or mercy.

Author of fiction bestsellers and provocative commentary, Patricia Nell Warren has her writings archived at Reach her by e-mail at [email protected]

Copyright © 2012 by Patricia Nell Warren. All rights reserved.

November 2012