Close, Single, and Infectious: Are Hookup Apps to Blame for a Deadly Meningitis Outbreak Among Gay Men?

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May 29 2013 11:59 AM

Close, Single, and Infectious

A deadly meningitis outbreak is targeting the gay community. Are hookup apps to blame?

A patient receives a free meningitis vaccine from Dr. Wayne Chen at the AIDS Healthcare Foundation pharmacy on April 15, 2013, in Hollywood, Calif.
A patient receives a free meningitis vaccine from Dr. Wayne Chen at the AIDS Healthcare Foundation pharmacy on April 15, 2013, in Hollywood, Calif.

Photo by Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images

The first thing you see when you open the app Grindr are men—or rather, parts of men. Faces and torsos confront you in tiny boxes, accompanied by spare descriptions (height, weight) and a crucial factor: physical proximity. One user might be 50 feet away, another 200; expand your range, and you can find a man far across town. Like what you see? Message to meet up. Whether you’re looking for sex, a date, or even just a friend, apps like Grindr can give you the perfect match.

Mark Joseph Stern Mark Joseph Stern

Mark Joseph Stern is a writer for Slate. He covers science, the law, and LGBTQ issues.

Something else they can give you, according to the New York City Department of Health: meningitis.

A new strain of the disease has been spreading in New York City, targeting the gay community. In the past three years, 22 people have been infected with the bacteria. Seven died. All of them were men who have sex with men. And all of them used hookup apps link Grindr, Scruff, and Adam4Adam.

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In response, the Health Department has officially tied the meningitis outbreak to the use of smartphone apps, warning all New York users to get vaccinated. Citing smartphone technology has proven a controversial move, with some in the gay community accusing the department of tacit homophobia and sententiousness.

They’re wrong. The department is seizing upon the only lead it has and using the same technology—hookup apps—to spread awareness of the outbreak. The strategy might seem suspect in light of the government’s hideously homophobic early response to the AIDS crisis. But this time around, there’s a key difference: The Health Department is on the gay community’s side. And it may have already begun saving lives.

The scariest thing about New York’s meningitis outbreak is its erratic spread. Typically, a meningitis outbreak is confined to a discrete physical location, like a dorm or a military barracks. The bacteria spread through social contact—anything from sharing a drink to sex—which is inevitable in a close, confined space. These traditional outbreaks are fairly easy to contain: High-risk individuals can be identified, vaccinated, and treated in a hurry, halting the spread of the disease.

The recent outbreak, in contrast, has taken place throughout New York City. Its victims are connected not by place but by activity—same-sex intimacy. And that intimacy is often facilitated by technology.

“In New York City, if you were to grab 100 gay men and say, ‘let me see your phone,’ the chances are they all have [a hookup app],” says Dr. Demetre Daskalakis, the incoming medical director of the Mount Sinai AIDS Program (and an intrepid gay health activist). “It may or may not be a direct driver of this infection. But it is a marker for people who are socializing in a network where the disease can be transmitted.”

That’s why in March, about 18 months after the outbreak began, the city’s Health Department has officially designated all users of such apps “high risk” and advised that they get vaccinated, possibly through the city’s free program. (Users with HIV are at especially high risk: Twelve of the 24 victims have been HIV-positive.)

“In the days of bathhouses, people were certainly having anonymous sex,” says Dr. Jay Varma, the deputy commissioner for disease control at the New York City Health Department. “But you had a location as an identifying characteristic,” so at-risk individuals could be tracked down with relative ease. But with the digital bathhouse of hookup apps, there’s no such identifying characteristic. And the apps don’t store records of the encounters, either—a privacy perk for users but a frustration for public health experts.