Health experts address meningitis death of gay man

04/15/2013 12:00 AM

04/15/2013 2:42 PM

Health experts worked hard Sunday to defuse fears of a national epidemic among gay men after a Sacramento native died Saturday from a lethal strain of bacterial meningitis that has claimed seven lives in New York City this year.

Brett Shaad, a 33-year-old commercial and real estate lawyer, had just resigned his job in Los Angeles to run a nonprofit seeking to prevent suicide by getting mental health care to those who couldn't afford it, said family spokeswoman Elizabeth Ashford. "He also planned to work on his brother Brian's organic farm in Natomas, Feeding Crane Farms."

Shaad was declared legally brain dead from the disease Friday. His family took him off life support at Cedars-Sinai hospital in Los Angeles on Saturday night.

"The doctors don't know where or how Brett contracted meningitis," Ashford said.

The 1998 graduate of Jesuit High School was "an incredibly generous person who was adored by his many friends and our family," said his brother, Brian Shaad. "He had the biggest heart, and a deep passion for social justice."

Thirteen cases of bacterial meningitis in gay men in New York have been reported this year, including seven deaths. But health experts discounted concerns about an epidemic among gay men.

"This is not a disease transmittable mainly by sexual contact," said Dr. Parveen Kaur of the AIDS Healthcare Foundation. "It's spread by respiratory droplets, which means you can be sitting and having a prolonged conversation with somebody and spread the disease without having sex. It can also be transmitted through saliva and intimate activities."

Shaad lived in West Hollywood and friends said he was in good health. He reportedly attended a gathering of about 10,000 gay men known as the White Party in Palm Springs two weeks ago. But so far, no one else at the party has contracted the disease, Kaur said.

Anything that ties Shaad's death to the party "is just conjecture," Ashford said.

Bacterial meningitis inflames the covering of the brain and spinal cord, Kaur said.

The disease usually starts with a fever, rapidly followed by an intense headache with increased sensitivity to light followed by neck stiffness and a rash, Kaur said. "Out of 100 cases, 10 to 15 people will die, and 11 to 20 will have hearing loss, mental retardation and other neurological damage."

Many people who have bacterial meningitis "are asymptomatic carriers who themselves are not ill," said Dr. Otto Yang, a UCLA medical professor and expert on infectious diseases. "This is extremely preventable with vaccinations: People who were in contact with the person who died should seriously consider it."

Los Angeles County officials have not determined whether Shaad was afflicted with the same strain that killed gay men in New York, Ashford said.

Shaad, who graduated from Boston College and attended Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law in New York, would take long weekend trips abroad with friends, to destinations as far flung as Colombia, Brazil, Hawaii and Asia, Ashford said. "He'd been to China in the two weeks prior to his death."

Before he became ill, he resigned from his job to focus more on Feeding Crane Farms. He also planned to start a nonprofit with a friend to get mental help to people who either couldn't afford it or were afraid to seek help because of the social stigma, Ashford said. "He wanted to help prevent suicides."

Call The Bee's Stephen Magagnini, (916) 321-1072. Follow him on Twitter @stevemagagnini.

Editor's note: This story was changed April 15 to correct the year Brett Shaad graduated.

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