Though it recently increased the population of gay and bisexual men who should get vaccinated for meningitis from 10,000 to between 30,000 and 100,000, New York City’s health department zeroed out its budget for responding to the meningitis outbreak for the next fiscal year.
“The idea of cutting any resources that could allow us to get ahead of the meningitis outbreak is shocking, if only because Mayor Bloomberg has worked hard to make public health a signature part of his legacy,” wrote Sean Barry, a director of VOCAL-NY, in an email. “The amount we’re talking about is a rounding error in the health department’s budget.”
The community organizing group, which works to end the HIV epidemic, first noticed that the proposed city budget for the 2014 fiscal year, which begins on July 1, cuts the entire $136,044 for a line item titled “meningitis outbreak.” There was no such line item in the 2013 city budget as originally adopted.
The health department spent $204,000 in city tax levy dollars and $68,000 in federal vaccine funds to buy 4,000 doses of vaccine last year, according to records Gay City News obtained under the state Freedom of Information Law. It is not known if the agency has purchased any new vaccine doses. It spent an unknown amount on palm cards and website ads to alert men about the outbreak. In a statement, the health department would not say how much it has spent or how the cut will affect its vaccination plans.
“We continue to dedicate substantial time, effort, and resources to educate the target population and stakeholders, supply and administer vaccines, assist community partners, and investigate the outbreak,” the statement read.
The department wrote that there is an “ample supply of vaccine in New York City” and that vaccinations are available from private doctors and public and private clinics.
The proposed health department budget overall is $1.33 billion, which is down from the modified 2013 budget of $1.68 billion.
The meningitis line item cut comes as the health department expanded the population it wants to vaccinate.
On October 16 of last year, roughly two weeks after the health department disclosed the meningitis outbreak among men who have sex with men, a senior health department official told a gathering of doctors that the department hoped to vaccinate 10,000 men.
At last official count, 10,209 people had been vaccinated though that is likely an undercount. Gay Men’s Health Crisis, the AIDS services group, vaccinated over 900, with the vaccine provided free by the health department, and the Callen-Lorde Community Health Center vaccinated at least 2,139 people. Callen-Lorde has received 1,500 free doses for uninsured patients, and will be vaccinating people at Pride events in Lower Manhattan and Harlem the weekend of June 28 - 30. Between them, the two groups have delivered roughly 30 percent of the vaccinations.
Earlier this year, the Village Voice reported that the health department hoped to vaccinate 100,000, and the agency later told Gay City News that the new target was between 30,000 and 100,000.
The health department’s response has moved in fits and starts, with the result being that the caseload has grown though there have been no new cases reported since February.
The agency first noted the outbreak on September 27, reporting 12 meningitis cases among gay and bisexual men with four deaths since 2010. There was one case in 2010, three in 2011, and eight in 2012. The total caseload rose to 22 by February, with seven deaths. The state health department reported a 23rd case in a man who lived in upstate New York but spent significant time in the city.
The meningitis strain causing the current outbreak is related to a strain that caused an earlier outbreak among drug users in Central Brooklyn.
“Genetic analysis suggests that 6 of 7 infections are related to a strain of N. meningitidis that was responsible for the 2006 outbreak in New York City,” read a September health department alert.
Two other North American cities responded more aggressively and quickly halted comparable meningitis outbreaks among gay and bisexual men.
Toronto reported six cases with two deaths in 2001. Health officials there administered 3,850 vaccine doses at more 50 locations in less than a month and saw no new cases. Chicago had a six-case outbreak in 2003 and administered 14,267 doses at six sites in six days. There were no new cases in Chicago.