There’s no known medical reason why meningitis, which is transmitted through saliva, would spread more among gay and bisexual men. Yet New York, Chicago and now Southern California have experienced outbreaks disproportionately affecting that population.

Of the 13 cases of meningitis this year in L.A. County — excluding Long Beach, which has its own health department — seven were gay men.

“Certainly my patients have shown concern that something is running through the community like wildfire,” said Dr. Jay Gladstein, an internal medicine doctor in downtown L.A. who mostly treats gay and bisexual men. If patients survive the infection, it can still cause permanent brain damage or hearing loss.

Gladstein, who is also an HIV specialist, said he thinks that the cases are likely among men who have multiple sexual partners, engage in anonymous sex and use drugs that make them more susceptible.

“It’s a particular sub-population of gay men,” Gladstein said.

Earlier this year, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the New York City Department of Public Health launched a project to investigate the connection between gay men and meningitis. It’s possible that L.A. County will be included in the study as well, officials said.

“They’re looking at as many things that they can think of that might explain this — behaviors, sexual partners, nonsexual partners, close intimate contact in which saliva might be exchanged, immune status, HIV-positive, HIV-negative, other sexually transmitted infections,” said Dr. Robert Bolan, the medical director at the Los Angeles LGBT Center.

The research may also consider whether meningitis can be transmitted in other ways, such as sexual routes that might be making gay men more susceptible, said Dr. Rachel Civen, a medical epidemiologist at L.A. County’s Department of Public Health.  The bacteria Neisseria meningitidis that leads to meningitis is known to colonize the throat and mouth, but researchers will investigate whether it can also colonize other parts of the body, such as the genitals or anus.

Source: Adapted from the Los Angeles Times