WEST HOLLYWOOD, Calif. (AP) — In the heart of this close-knit gay community, Luke Martel reflects the feelings of many when it comes to a strain of meningitis that has killed three gay men this year in Los Angeles County: He's concerned but not overly so.
Martel, a gay bartender who moved to West Hollywood from New York City several months ago, called the deaths from the rare bacterial infection that can be passed by kissing, sharing utensils or coughing "a little scary" but said he doesn't plan to heed calls to get vaccinated.
"I might not take a drag off someone's cigarette now. And I'll run from people who don't cover their mouths when they cough," he said. But otherwise, he believes, "I'm safe."
Health officials this week announced a cluster of cases of invasive meningococcal disease that sickened eight people in the LA area. Among those who fell ill, half were gay or bisexual, including the three who died. Two of the victims were HIV-positive.
Meningitis infections occasionally pop up in places where people interact closely. The risk of infection is considered low among any population, but those with compromised immune systems are more susceptible, health experts say.
"It is concerning," said Michael Weinstein, president of the AIDS Healthcare Foundation, which is offering free meningitis vaccinations.
The disease attacks the protective membranes covering the brain and spinal cord. It can only be spread through close contact. Symptoms including fever, headache, stiff neck, nausea and vomiting that can develop within days of being exposed.
College campuses, high school locker rooms and prisons can be breeding grounds for the disease. In recent years, gay communities in New York, Chicago and Toronto have seen outbreaks, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Since 2010, New York has recorded 22 meningitis infections among gay men and seven deaths.
The latest cases in Los Angeles, which aren't considered an outbreak, come a year after a 33-year-old lawyer from West Hollywood was stricken with meningitis after attending a party in Palm Springs. He fell into a coma and died.
Several of the recent cases involved people who lived or socialized in North Hollywood and West Hollywood, an enclave for gays and lesbians where crosswalks are painted rainbow colors. Residents and visitors flock to bars and clubs lining Sunset Boulevard and displaying gay pride signs and flags.
Dr. Jeffrey Klausner, an infectious disease specialist at the University of California, Los Angeles, said people shouldn't be fearful of visiting the city. "It's not unexpected that where people socially congregate, there may be a small increase in communicable infections," he said.
The California Department of Public Health has received reports of 25 meningitis cases so far this year. Last year, there were 111 reported cases. Health officials don't yet know what strain is involved.
Advocates have criticized the Los Angeles County Department of Public Health's response, noting the agency on Wednesday initially reported the cluster of cases and asked gay men to seek vaccinations, but the agency didn't mention the deaths.
Dr. Jonathan Fielding, public health director, defended the department, saying a separate letter went out to doctors notifying them of the deaths. "There was no effort to hold anything back," he said.
In light of the meningitis deaths, a clinic affiliated with the AIDS Project Los Angeles vaccinated four people, said UCLA's Klausner, who's the medical director there.
The AIDS Healthcare Foundation vaccinated nine people. Those who were immunized during last year's scare don't need another shot, said spokesman Ged Kenslea.
Many people asked about the disease Friday knew little or nothing about it. Frank Leigh, a 44-year-old online ad salesman, said he and his partner discussed it in passing but don't plan on getting vaccinated because they have been in a monogamous relationship for years.
"If I was still going out and doing the club thing I might be more concerned," he said.
He has never known anyone with meningitis, "but I know it's a serious thing. It's no joke. I hope guys will be careful out there. We don't want this thing blowing up."
AP Science Writer Alicia Chang contributed to this report from Los Angeles.