AIDS Healthcare Foundation gives hundreds of meningitis vaccines

By Anna Gorman, Los Angeles Times

Reacting to the death of a young West Hollywood lawyer over the weekend and growing concerns about the possible spread of bacterial meningitis, the AIDS Healthcare Foundation gave hundreds of free vaccinations to visitors who showed up Monday at its facilities.

The organization, which initially ordered about 1,000 doses and plans to acquire more, said it would continue providing the shots as needed.

Brett Shaad, 33, contracted meningitis and died several days later after attending a gathering of gay men in Palm Springs.

"We needed to do something," said Karen Haughey, one of the nurses who was administering the shots Monday. "We needed to step up now because we want to prevent an outbreak."

Bacterial meningitis can be transmitted by coughing and kissing, though it is not as contagious as the common cold. The disease is treatable with antibiotics but can be fatal.

Shaad's case is the only one reported recently to L.A. County health authorities and the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. But public health officials said they were remaining vigilant and watching for more cases and continuing to examine the bacterial meningitis strain contracted by Shaad.

An outbreak of the disease in New York, primarily among gay men, has infected nearly two dozen people and killed seven victims in recent years. Officials do not yet know whether the cases in New York are related to the local one.

On Monday morning, dozens of men lined up outside the AIDS Healthcare Foundation's West Hollywood pharmacy.

Mark Chavez, a landscape architect who lives in West Hollywood, said he decided to get the vaccine after hearing about Shaad's death. Chavez said he feared the disease could spread and things "could get worse."

"You just don't want to take that chance," he said. "Gay or straight, everyone should be aware of it."

Allen Smith, a 21-year-old dance student, said he had a weak immune system and wanted to make sure he was protected against contracting the disease. News of the weekend death, he said, "reminded everyone how short life really is."

Eric Aronson, 41, of West Hollywood, said he was concerned that he could have been exposed to the illness during a recent trip to New York. He heard about the free vaccines over the weekend and showed up early Monday morning.

"It does make you worry," he said. "We could all be susceptible."

Brett Thompson, an art director who works in New York and Los Angeles, said he had been trying to get the vaccine for more than three weeks. "I couldn't find anybody who carried it," he said.

The disease is "really scary," he said. "You could get it on a Saturday and be dead four days later."

When he finally got in to see the nurse, Thompson, 56, learned the vaccine available was for people 55 and younger. He would have to come back another day.