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Los Angeles County health officials on Wednesday began offering free meningitis vaccinations to low-income and uninsured residents while downplaying fears about a potential outbreak of the disease.

“We really sympathize with the heightened concern related to meningococcal disease,” said Dr. Jonathan Fielding, the county’s top health officer.

“We hope that by sharing what we know, we’ll alleviate some of the anxiety that has surfaced over the last several days.”

Fielding held a news conference only days after the sudden death of Brett Shaad, a 33-year-old West Hollywood lawyer who was diagnosed with the disease.

Leaders in West Hollywood, which has a significant gay population, were joined by other health advocates in calling on county officials to provide vaccinations and more information about Shaad’s death and any others.

There remains concern among some that Shaad’s meningitis may have been the same strain or very similar to that which infected several gay men in New York City.

Health officials there found a strain that resulted in 22 cases since 2010 that involved men who they said had intimate encounters, including sex, with other men. Seven of those cases were fatal.

In response, the AIDS Healthcare Foundation started providing free vaccines at three of its own locations on Monday and said they have already given more than 1,500.

They were initially critical of the county’s response to the issue and said officials did not do enough to inform residents.

“I think they’ve been a day late on their reaction to this,” said Ged Kenslea of the foundation.

Fielding said that after learning of the developments in New York, officials in L.A. County began collecting data in November 2012 that included whether the cases also specifically involved men who had sex with men.

The disease is not classified as being sexually transmitted but can be spread by close and intimate encounters including kissing, and by sneezing and coughing.

There have been 13 cases of meningococcal disease in L.A. County since then, Fielding said, four of which involved men who had sex with men.

At least two of those were fatal, he said, adding that officials would know by the end of the week if Shaad’s case was indeed somehow connected to those in New York.

Nevertheless, Fielding said the county averages about 25 meningitis deaths each year and that none of the cases since November 2012 had been geographically or behaviorally connected.

He said he understands the public’s concern, but that L.A. County does not have an outbreak on its hands.

“We remain vigilant and on alert and are prepared to deploy all resources at our disposal at the first hint of a meningococcal disease outbreak,” Fielding said.

“But right now we do not have an outbreak of meningococcal disease in Los Angeles County.”

He also wanted to be clear that “this is not a gay disease at all” and said meningitis is most often “random” and “sporadic.”

The vaccines, which Fielding said normally cost between $70 and $130, can be obtained at seven county clinics and hospitals:

Harbor-UCLA Medical Center, Los Angeles County/USC Medical Center, Olive View-UCLA Medical Center, the High Desert Multi-Service Ambulatory Care Center, Humphrey Comprehensive Health Center, Hudson Comprehensive Health Center and Martin Luther King Jr. Multi-Service Ambulatory Care Center.

Symptoms of meningitis can include fever, stiff neck and severe headaches. Because it can begin much like a case of the flu, the fast-moving illness can be easily overlooked.

Anyone who has been in close contact with a person known to be infected with meningococcal meningitis should immediately contact a healthcare provider to receive appropriate antibiotic treatment.

–Los Angeles Times