Why Are Officials Linking a Meningitis Outbreak to Gay Hookup Apps?

You've probably heard the murmurs of panic surrounding the rash of potentially lethal meningitis cases in New York City, especially if you're a gay male. Since 2010, 22 cases of meningococcal meningitis have been reported, and those infected have exclusively been gay or bisexual men. 13 of those cases happened last year, and four have been reported in 2013, putting the disease on track to hit the same numbers again this year. Seven of the 22 have died, including three of the last five cases reported. The deaths happen within a few hours of the illness taking hold of the body— it goes from headache to fever to rash to death in sometimes under a day. Though 22 cases over 3 years doesn't seem like much, the rapid spread of meningitis is making people freak out.

But meningococcal meningitis isn't a "gay disease," not that such a thing exists. In can be spread through same sex contact the same way it can be spread through male-female sex. It can also be spread by making out and snuggling, neither of which are a "gay" thing last time I checked.

However, 22 of the 22 people that have been infected are not only gay or bisexual, but all of them also used hookup apps like Grindr and Adam4Adam. This has caused enough alarm in the New York City Department of Health that they released an official statement in last month advising men "who regularly have intimate contact with other men met through a website, digital application ("App"), or a bar or party" to get vaccinations against the disease.

But meningitis isn't AIDS, and some are more than a little miffed that city officials are suggesting this disease is specific only to gay men using hookup apps. The apps have altered the way the disease spreads in the city, though, and that's what makes the city's plea for app users to get vaccinations valid. Whereas in the past, meningitis outbreaks tended to be contained in physical locations, such as dorms, but this outbreak has spread to multiple areas in NYC, a phenomenon that can be explained by hookup app users.

Does this mean that you should throw your iPhone out of a taxi window if you're a gay male who downloaded Grindr a few days ago? No. The app itself will not make you get meningitis. Not getting a vaccine will.

Gay health activist Dr. Demetre Daskalakis has become the face of the vaccination movement in the wake of the outbreak. "In New York City, if you were to grab 100 gay men and say, 'let me see your phone,' the chances are they all have a [hookup appp]," said Daskalakis, who has been stationing himself in gay nightclubs to vaccinate men before they hit the dance floor, an environment prime for the infection to spread. "it may or not may not be a direct driver of this infection. But it is a marker for people who are socializing in a network where diseases can be transmitted."

Daskalakis says that it's a stroke of bad luck that the NYC gay community happen to be struck by this strain of meningitis, stating it could have easily have affected other groups, like the Hasidic community. There's nothing sinister about the fact that this outbreak has hit the NYC gay community, but make use of the city's ample resources if you believe you could contract the illness, whether you use apps to hook up or not.

Get free vaccinations at the Gay Men's Health Crisis on 446 W. 33rd Street in New York City.

[Slate]

Images via Grindr and Manhunt