Guest Commentary: Lethal disease can be stopped
Earlier this year, outbreaks of bacterial meningitis cropped up among gay and bisexual men in New York and Los Angeles. Fear gripped gay communities in cities across the country as many men wondered, according to the New York Times, “whether this is AIDS, circa 1981, all over again.”
There was ample reason to worry: bacterial meningitis – the swelling of the lining around the brain and the spinal cord – is a lethal disease. The symptoms come on fast but appear very ordinary; in fact, they so closely resemble the flu that many victims don’t bother to see a doctor. This can have deadly consequences.
What if there was a way to eradicate bacterial meningitis like we eradicated polio? There is, but so far the government has ignored it and I need your help to change that.
Why Meningitis Terrifies Me
Bacterial meningitis has a 10-15% fatality rate, and in some cases, it can kill within hours. Those who survive often suffer serious complications including lost limbs, brain damage, hearing loss, and learning disabilities.
To make matters worse, it can be spread through casual contact, including kissing, sneezing, coughing, and sharing items like utensils, drinking glasses, and even cigarettes. Because of this, tight-knit communities like the LGBT community are at greater risk for an outbreak, as are groups of people who live and interact in close quarters.
So when the headlines about bacterial meningitisappeared and comparisons to the early days of the AIDS epidemic started flying around, I was terrified. My husband Michael is my world, and we’ve been fighting for each other and for our equal rights for as long as we’ve been together.
There was no way I wouldn’t fight every bit as hard not to lose him.
Thankfully, a bacterial meningitis vaccine is available that is safe and effective. When health departments in major cities began recommending that all sexually active men who have sex with men receive the vaccine, Michael and I immediately decided to get the shot – even though we’re monogamous. Because of the elevated risk in the LGBT community and the relative ease with which the disease is transmitted, we could still get sick from a shared glass of wine or a goodbye kiss.
As I explained to our doctor, when it comes to my husband’s life, I wasn’t about to take any chances.
So like tens of thousands of others, we received the vaccine. Afterwards I took to social media to talk about my experience (that’s my ” target=”_blank”>Instagram photo above) and encourage others to do get the shot, as did many of my LGBT blogger colleagues across the country. Thanks to aggressive, large-scale, LGBT-specific vaccination programs, we’re making progress in the fight against bacterial meningitis. For example, In New York City – where at least 16,000 people received the vaccine - no new cases of the deadly disease have been reported for months.
Help Me Get the Government to Change Its Mind
There’s still work to be done. One of the most glaring gaps in our defense against bacterial meningitis is the fact that current CDC vaccine recommendations leave infants and children – the group with the highest infection rate for invasive meningococcal disease – dangerously unprotected.
This puts kids across the country at risk of contracting and spreading bacterial meningitis, including in the more than 115,000 households in America where same-sex couples are raising children. It also decreases the herd immunity that people with compromised immune systems, including those with HIV and AIDS, rely on to protect them from the disease.
When it meets this week, the CDC’s Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices (ACIP) has an opportunity to fix this. At its October 23-25 meeting in Atlanta, the ACIP will decide whether to recommend the bacterial meningitis vaccine for babies and small children. The topic of bacterial meningitis is scheduled for conversation on Tuesday.
I’ve created a Change.org petition encouraging them to do so, because I strongly believe that vaccinating more aggressively for bacterial meningitis will protect children and save lives.
Tragically, our LGBT community knows all too well how health crises can spread and become epidemics, and we know from our experiences this year that the best approach to fighting bacterial meningitis is ensuring that the vaccine is made available to everyone.
Please sign my petition urging the ACIP to add the bacterial meningitis vaccine to its list of recommended vaccines for infants and children. We’ve made the feds protect our families before – let’s do it again.
Help make a difference. Sign my petition, and then share this post on Facebook and Twitter.