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Meningitis and Gay Men: Where There’s Smoke, Is There a Story?

Statistical reporting is rife with the potential to distort numbers and mislead readers. 
I can’t tell you the number of ‘credited, credible studies’ that I have read a news story about – stories asserting one thing or another - only to discover that the author of the study or the reporter or both have misinterpreted their findings.  Typically, in the scientific community, this will mean running a retraction, but that is not always the case in the mainstream media.  All too frequently, such misinformation is merely pushed aside – not forgotten (for there is always some half-wit who will quote misinterpreted data if it serves the purpose of what they wish to assert as truth) – but it goes un-refuted in any tangible way. 
Because people don’t like being wrong.  Because reporters don’t like being called out on their bullshit, their laziness, their sloppy reporting, their lack of knowledge, their bias, or their desire to break the-next-big-story.  Granted, not all these stories are blown out of proportion for the sake of gain.  Sometimes the heart is in the right place (while the facts remain all over the place).
Take, for example the latest media hype surrounding gay men and Meningitis.  Is there a story here, or isn’t there?  For every bit of hard evidence (statistical) there appears to be some error involved.  For every possible link, a bit of missing truth.
Example – the reporting of 22 Meningitis related deaths in New York in a story about gay men dying of Meningitis and a potential outbreak.  Scary, right?  What they didn’t mention?  That number is spread over a ten year period.   And then it was discovered that one of those cases was actually a 12 year old girl.  So… what’s the frequency, Kenneth?
Example – “The rate of meningitis in gay men in New York City has spiked to 60 times higher than their straight counterparts.” – This was reported in a story about a story by NBC News stating that “Health Officials Say Meningitis Cases In NY And L.A. Are Unrelated”.  So… question?  What is that information based on, what is its source, and what does it mean?  Is it meaningful?  Instinct’s on-line magazine is the culprit here (and, perhaps not the go-to guys for hard news).  I’m just going to allow you to read the ‘whole’ story and see if you can tell me in absolute terms what it is they are reporting – and if you can tell me where that second to the last paragraph comes from?  NBC News? 
Health Officials Say Meningitis Cases In NY And L.A. Are Unrelated
Written by Jonathan Higbee | Monday, 22 April 2013
After worrying the gay communities in California and New York, the string of high-profile meningitis deaths of gay men in NY and L.A. seem to be unrelated, according to health officials.
NBCNews reports:
After four cases of meningococcal disease among gay men were reported in Los Angeles County in recent months, there were concerns that the New York City outbreak had spread, but public health officials in Los Angeles and New York say the strains are not connected.
The New York City outbreak has been linked to parties, online websites or apps that men used to find other men for "close or intimate sexual contact," according to health officials. But for more than half of the men sickened by meningitis, there was no evidence that the men had used any of these means to encounter other men, according to public health officials.
Public health officials in Los Angeles are being careful not to cause alarm. “Right now we do not have an outbreak of meningococcal disease in LA County,” Dr. Jonathan Fielding, director of Public Health for the Los Angeles County Health Department, told NBC, citing outbreak definition requirements from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
The situation in New York, however, is more worrisome.
The rate of meningitis in gay men in New York City has spiked to 60 times higher than their straight counterparts. Last fall health officials advised vaccination for some HIV-positive men, but recently expanded the recommendation to include all gay men statewide who have “traveled to the City” and “met through an online website, digital application ("app"), or at a bar or party” since September 1, 2012.
Vaccinations have been provided to gay men in L.A. as well as in all of New York state "who may have traveled to the city recently."
 - End of story? -
Have you been following the development of this story at all?  To really appreciate just how potentially absurd this bit of ‘reporting’ may be you need to know the background.  I urge you to read the following ‘stories’:
And would ask that you pay particular attention to the third one listed: L.A. Meningitis Patient's Brother Clears Up The Rumors And Misreporting.  Also please note that a politician in California is involved (what might his motivation be?).
I think it’s horrible that people die of Meningitis. I have a family member that was diagnosed five years ago and have seen the horrible effects and after-effects of this disease first hand.   500 (out of 4,100) cases of bacterial meningitis (not fungal – which is not passed person-to-person) ended in death in 2012.  Out of that 500, I am sure there were a number of them that happened to be gay.  Yep – gay people die of bacterial meningitis.  Is that the story?
I don’t know.  I can’t tell.  Is there a story?  Does it warrant this alarming rhetoric?  Are they merely fanning the flames?  Who benefits from it?  Who benefits from vaccinations?  Who benefits from the reporting of ‘outbreaks’ and ‘health scares’?  Ask yourself the hard questions.  Read between the lines.
Is this ‘AIDS II’?
I don’t know.  And neither do the people reporting this supposed story AND THAT pisses me off. This is not our first time ‘round the rodeo, boys.  What I really wish is that rather than being handed sound bites we were handed hard statistics. Rather than possible links and speculation, I would like to learn the facts.
Is there a story here? 
I can’t tell. 
And, correct me if I am wrong, but I believe it is the job of the media and health officials and politicians to give us the information we need. 
Should we be concerned?  
Yes.  Yes, we should.  We should be concerned – not only that gay men are dying of meningitis, but also that the media are so quick to manufacture a gay health crisis in order to sell ad time/space and boost readership and ratings.  It is irresponsible to misinform the public.
That said, yes, Virginia, there really could be something to all this.
But I’ll be damned if I can figure out just what that is…
Please use the comments section below to enlighten us all with hard facts. Please don’t use this as a jumping off point to lecture us on safer sex, the upside of monogamy, or that gay men who are sexually active have not learned from history (because you KNOW that the media and all those haters out there are just salivating at the thought of being able to do exactly that). 
If you have hard facts, I would love to learn more. 
If you want to give a lecture on the moral value of abstinence – get your own blog.   
Is the sky falling?
No, Chicken Little, the sky is not falling.


Anonymous said...

I don't have any particular words of wisdom; just a recollection back to my early middle school days.

A classmate died of meningitis and of course and rightly so, all our parents went wild with worry. (tail end of the polio epidemic). It seemed to me that every kid in school was taking these big, white horse-pills (sulfa) with the exception of myself. My pediatrician decided they were not necessary and didn't prescribe me any. I didn't get sick, didn't die but I do recall feeling really frightened and exposed.

Looking back on all this as an adult, all I can say or offer in the way of advice is to consult a medical professional that you trust. Hopefully, this will be your own PCP. If you haven't told him/her that you are Gay; well maybe it's time you did.

whkattk said...

It's not only medical and scientific studies which are misrepresented, misused. There were several times during the early coverage of the Boston incident when I screamed at the tv, "What the fuck has happened to journalism!?"
It's sad and extremely frightening that reporters are no longer verifying information before "reporting" it.
But, what's even worse, are the editors and producers who let the crappy reports go to print or on air.