While New York City’s health department purchased nearly 8,000 meningitis vaccine doses in 2013 in addition to the 4,000 doses it bought last year, the city’s supply is still well short of the number needed to meet the department’s goal of vaccinating 30,000 to 100,000 gay and bisexual men.
The health department spent just under $535,700 to buy 7,875 doses in two batches in May and June, according to records Gay City News obtained under the state Freedom of Information Law.
In 2012, the agency spent $272,000 to buy 4,000 doses. At that time, the health department said it wanted to vaccinate 10,000 men who have sex with men (MSM). It has since increased the vaccination target.
To date, more than 11,000 people have been vaccinated, though that is likely an undercount as there is no legal requirement to report adult meningitis vaccinations to health authorities.
The vaccination campaign was launched in September after the agency reported 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 of this year, with seven deaths. There have been no new cases since February.
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 health department’s vaccination campaign has relied on the doses it buys and administers or distributes for free to private agencies, such as the Callen-Lorde Community Health Center and Gay Men’s Health Crisis, but also on private doctors and clinics buying their own vaccine and administering it. That has resulted in a slow response.
A June 17 report on the outbreak in the Annals of Internal Medicine noted that private doctors might not purchase vaccine because it is expensive and insurance companies might reimburse only part of the cost. The state Department of Financial Services wrote to insurers in April telling them that state law requires them to pay for the vaccine.
Half of the 22 men were African-American and 55 percent were HIV-positive, according to the report. The average age was 34. The report noted that “vaccine coverage may be suboptimal because of challenges in reaching the populations most at risk, particularly African-American MSM who may not self-identify as gay or be engaged in medical care.”
Health departments in other jurisdictions, “including Massachusetts, Rhode Island, San Francisco, San Diego, and Toronto, have recommended that MSM traveling to NYC be vaccinated,” the report noted.
Two other North American cities responded “rapidly,” the report said, and 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 over 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.
A senior city health department staffer, Dr. Don Weiss, was a co-author on the report and other senior department staff were acknowledged in the report. The health department did not respond to an email seeking comment.
On June 21, the State Senate passed legislation sponsored by Brad Hoylman, an openly gay freshman state senator who represents a district that runs from West 72nd Street to Greenwich Village, that would allow pharmacists to administer the meningitis vaccine. Daniel O’Donnell, an out gay Upper West Side assemblyman, sponsored the legislation in that chamber, where it also passed. Governor Andrew Cuomo is expected to sign it. The city's health committees, Dr. Thomas Farley, praised the measure in a written release.