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3 Chicago Gay Men Die in Meningitis Outbreak
Toronto Gay Community Faced Similar Cluster in 2001

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Three gay men died last week from bacterial meningitis, according to the Chicago Department of Public Health.

Once CDPH believed there was a cluster of cases among unrelated individuals, they went into high alert last Friday, held a press conference Saturday, and handed out flyers in heavily gay neighborhoods in an attempt to both educate the public and urge them to get vaccines at clinic sites.

As of Monday, more than 3,000 men and women had been vaccinated in the New Town and Andersonville neighborhoods, and there were possibly six cases of invasive meningococcal in gay men—including the three who died. Tim Hadac of CDPH said the city's initial order was for 7,500 doses of the vaccine, and they have ordered an additional 5,000 doses given the quick initial response for the vaccinations.

'Meningococcal disease is a serious bacterial infection caused by the bacteria Neisseria meningitidis that can be rapidly fatal if not treated with antibiotics,' CDPH said. 'It happens in two forms: meningitis and bloodstream infection. ... It appears that this cluster is centered among gay or bisexual men who have had close, direct contact with others in social settings on Chicago's North Side during the first two weeks of October.'

Gay bars and businesses in gay neighborhoods were quick to react, handing out flyers and encouraging patrons get vaccinated—or seek immediate treatment if they had any symptoms. Even those who do not have symptoms can be carriers of the bacteria, so everyone who may be at risk is urged to get vaccinated.

The vaccinations normally cost $50 per dose, but CDPH flew in vaccine from around the U.S. and is providing shots free of charge.

In the summer of 2001, Toronto experienced a similar meningitis cluster among gay men. For one month, Toronto Public Health and community partners conducted vaccine clinics. Five cases of the disease had been reported, two of which resulted in death—the clinics ended after the summer and there were no additional cases reported in that cluster group.

There are an average of 15-40 cases of meningitis reported in Chicago each year. Usually, they do not share common characteristics, and most are isolated either in college dorms or in institutions. In those cases, health officials would provide antibiotics to those who may have had contact with the bacteria.

In the most recent cases, however, there were no common factors besides the social group—therefore, vaccinations are the approach to a cluster outbreak.

CDPH also has alerted hospitals, raising their awareness of meningococcal disease and the need to quickly identify, treat, and report cases to the Department of Public Health. A vaccine is available for certain strains of the bacteria.

Is the vaccine safe for people with compromised immune systems, such as people with AIDS or HIV, or those undergoing cancer treatment? Greg Harris, chief of staff for Ald. Mary Ann Smith, has lived with HIV for many years. He said he was among those first in line for the vaccine Sunday.

The U.S. Centers of Disease control 'says that it is safe for people with compromised immune systems,' Harris said. 'It's a very safe vaccine—there are hardly any side effects. While the CDC has not done a study on it, to me as a person with AIDS, I made sure I was right at the front of the line. Someone in my position would want every bit of protection they can get. Unless you are allergic to latex or thimerosal, you should get this.'

Ald. Tom Tunney, Harris and others all said they were impressed with the CDPH response to the cluster, once it was identified. Tests Sunday morning confirmed that at least four of the cases were type C meningitis—one of the forms that does have a vaccine.

'The vaccine was flown in Sunday around 1 p.m., the vaccine sites were finalized and announced at 2:30 p.m., and vaccinations began at 5 p.m.,' Harris said. 'With two hours' notice, they vaccinated more than 1,400 people [Sunday] night and another 300 [Monday] morning. The response is fabulous. You heard people in bars making announcements to customers. People calling friends, text messaging friends—telling them to do it now.' Harris noted that among the CDPH efforts was the training of 130 vaccinators and screeners Sunday morning.

Activists and organizations used e-mail blasts to alert the community. 'This was a community effort, of realizing the concern, not panicking, but responding prudently. It is fast, easy and free,' Harris said, noting that a number of lesbians and heterosexuals were also lined up to get vaccines, given their friendships with gay men.

Lesbian Community Cancer Project Executive Director Jessica Halem received the vaccine Sunday and sent an e-mail urging others to do the same.

'The key thing to stress is that people without symptoms who want to get protection need to go to a vaccine site,' Greg Harris added. 'If you believe you have severe symptoms, go to the emergency room, do not just make a doctor's appointment. The time from when you develop symptoms to when you die can be hours or days.'

Art Johnston, co-owner of Sidetrack bar, 3349 N. Halsted, said Sunday his business was posting signs and encouraging people to get the vaccine as soon as the clinics were open.

Chuck Renslow, owner of the Man's Country and Eagle, 5015-17 N. Clark, posted the CDPH signs (enlarged on his copier) above all of the men's urinals, and said he and his staff would be getting vaccinated Oct. 21. 'Then we will put a sign up saying all of our employees, and I, have been vaccinated and we suggest you do, too,' Renslow said Monday. 'I think that will really encourage people to be vaccinated.'

Little Jim's bar, 3501 N. Halsted, will hold a memorial for one of its employees, Cairo, this Sunday, Oct. 26, at 4 p.m. Individuals who knew Cairo, who worked at the bar for about three years, said they did not want to comment on his life for fear of upsetting his family, who are Muslim.

Cairo was on the cover of the April 23, 2003 Nightspots.

'Everybody's concerned. One person who died, Cairo, was a close friend. First we were devastated, we'd lost a good friend, and now we're just trying not to lose any more,' said Bucks Saloon Manager Ed Lund. 'We're all doing the right thing, getting our shots. We're being careful about things like unnecessary bacteria. We're doing even more cleaning, even though we are a clean place. We are looking for areas we might have overlooked. '

'We've been working with the health department as much as possible,' said Gary Warner of Little Jim's. 'We are telling customers who might be at risk, and we are putting up flyers.' Warner said news reports said a customer of the bar also was infected, but Warner is not aware of who that might be, and he has not been told this by CDPH.

Jeff Kant, health and education director for Steamworks, 3246 N. Halsted, said they have been in close contact with local and federal health officials, and they have posted signs in all of their client rooms. In addition, 100% of their employees have been vaccinated as of Monday.

'I think that they [CDPH] are erring on side of caution,' Ald. Tunney said, adding that he has been vaccinated. 'I think they have really stepped it up and are aggressive about it. There were no new cases as of today [Monday].' Tunney added that bars might want to use disposable cups, like the Chicago Cubs do, for the short term. 'My concern is that we don't have drama and ignorance, like we did in the early years of AIDS.'

'When something like this happens, there needs to be lots of conversation about it and I'm definitely encouraging all my bartenders to get the shot,' said Manager John Taylor of Bobby Love's, 3729 N. Halsted.

Weekend crowds did not seem to be affected at the bars, although one closed briefly.

Jim Schuman, co-owner of Berlin, 954 W. Belmont, said his bar has posted the warnings. After health officials came in Friday night to inform the bar that two of the people infected said they had gone to many Halsted clubs in addition to Berlin, two bartenders who are 'one part hypochondriac and two parts clean-nicks,' closed the bar for about 45 minutes to re-clean all of the glasses, Schuman said. 'It was probably the smart thing to do,' he added.

'I don't think it's going to affect business,' Lund of Bucks, 3439 N. Halsted, said. 'This is a family bar, everybody knows everybody. We're only a block and a half from Little Jim's. Our customers are one and the same.'

'I was here yesterday afternoon, and no one was talking about it at all, but the bar was slow,' said Damien, bartender at Buddies', 3301 N. Clark. 'We have signs up, of course. ... I don't kiss people a lot. I've been a bartender for 35 years and that's my way of handling it. We've also had an anti-bacterial machine behind the bar that we use all the time, even though it dries you out like an allegator. I guess we'll be using that a lot.'

'We're getting customers educated, [Mayor's liaison] Bills Greaves came by on Saturday and explained to managers and door staff what was going on, and dropped off info to hand out,' said Patrick Harms of Circuit, 3641 N. Halsted. 'We made additional copies and on Sunday they brought more and in Spanish. Again we made more copies because we have a large Latin customer base. We hung up info and had the security staff handing it out, encouraging people to go to where Gallimaufry used to be to get shots. We sent the staff one by one if they wanted to get shots. A lot of customers said they were just going out to get the shots right then. People are trying to educate themselves and not overreact. The people who were there and came back said there was a long line, lots of people getting the shot. I see people looking at signs in windows and taking time to read.'

'We're posting things, getting our customers educated, telling everyone to go get the shot. Everyone is listening, no one is over reacting, there's no mass hysteria,' said Geno Zaharakis, owner of Cocktail, 3359 N. Halsted. 'The city has been doing great. They came in and gave us literature to post and hand out to the staff.'

'It was a bit different around here. The first night people were shook up, after that they seemed fine as they found out more,' said a bartender at Lucky Horseshoe, 3169 Halsted.

'We'll find out this weekend if things slow down,' said one manager of a Halsted gay business. 'This could blow up in everyone's faces. ... The health department is on top of it. We can't be blaming it on everyone here or focusing on Halsted. That guy probably had it before he went into the bar.'

— Also contributing: Jean Albright


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Two more Chicago meningitis cases reported 2016-04-12
Meningitis outbreak grows; CDPH, CDC expand vaccine recommendation 2015-06-18
Area officials monitoring L.A. meningitis scare 2014-04-05
CDPH: No reported meningitis in Chicago despite coastal cases 2013-04-14
L.A. GL Center issues meningitis alert 2013-04-12
VIEWS Letters 2003-12-03
Health Scare 2003-11-12
14,000 Vaccinated in Meningitis Scare 2003-10-29
Meningitis: How it Spreads 2003-10-22
Meningitis: Where to be Vaccinated 2003-10-22
Community Alert: meningococcal meningitis 2003-10-15

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