Vaccine calms fears of meningitis becoming AIDS-like epidemic

The recent outbreak of bacterial meningitis among gay and bisexual men in New York City raised fears of an AIDS-like epidemic. Things are different this time though. Health authorities have a vaccine to hold back the spread of the disease.

When HIV tore through the city in the 1980s, spreading fear as well as disease, health authorities lacked an effective way to protect the population. In contrast, as bacterial meningitis spread through the community last year doctors upped their use of meningitis vaccines. At least 16,000 people have received the vaccine, although the actual figure could be higher as doctors are not required to report having given the shot. New cases have stopped appearing, prompting health officials to believe that the vaccine is protecting the 30,000 to 100,000 people thought to be at risk.

"We think that because we've had no cases in 6 months, we have to conclude that enough of the population has been vaccinated to provide protection at least for now. Whether or not this provides protection for several years is something that we'll have to see," New York City's deputy commissioner of disease control Dr. Jay Varma told The New York Times. Officials had feared gay pride events in late June could spark a resurgence of the outbreak.

The health department recommends doctors continue providing the vaccine to men at risk of catching the bacterial infection, and beginning Oct. 29 pharmacies will be able to administer the jab. Legislators passed the pharmacy bill to make it easier for men to access quadrivalent meningococcal vaccines from Novartis ($NVS) and Sanofi ($SNY). Health officials also ran vaccination and public health campaigns in gay bars, and the HIV services medical director at Mount Sinai Hospital gave free shots at bathhouses, after-hours sex clubs and private parties. The Times reports the campaign by Mount Sinai's Dr. Demetre Daskalakis was one of the most successful vaccination initiatives.

- read the NYT article