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Gays in LA area warned after meningitis kills 33-year-old man

Officials in West Hollywood, Calif., are warning members of the public to protect themselves against meningococcal infection, an illness caused by a bacteria or virus that can be fatal.

City Councilman John Duran held a news conference Friday afternoon alongside Chris Brown, director of health and mental health for the LA Gay and Lesbian Center, to sound an alarm.

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Duran told NBC4 one of his long-time supporters -- a 33-year-old gay man -- had been diagnosed with meningitis two days ago, was hospitalized and fell into a coma. The man died Friday afternoon, Duran said.

The man had attended an annual Palm Springs event known as the White Party, which took place over Easter weekend and draws thousands of gay men from across the country to the desert city, Duran said.

"If this resident was in fact in attendance at the White Party, it raises the issue, so we want to get the word out to any gay men that were at the White Party, that if they have any of these symptoms, go see their physician immediately," Duran said at the news conference.

Duran said he didn't want to be alarmist, but wanted gay men and others to be on alert for signs of the disease, which can initially resemble the flu.

Dr. Maxine Liggins, area medical director for the Los Angeles County Department of Public Health, said people who think they may have been exposed should watch for a stiff neck, fever, headache, sometimes a rash, and generally not feeling well.

Duran suggested the West Hollywood case may be from a similar bacterial meningitis strain that circulated among gay men in New York City -- an outbreak that infected 22 people and has killed seven people since 2010.

Los Angeles County Department of Public Health officials said they have not confirmed a direct connection between the Los Angeles-area case and the New York City strain.

Officials don't want to cause panic, Duran said, but are taking an active stance to avoid the delays in response to AIDS 30 years ago.

On Friday, the Equinox fitness club on Sunset Boulevard in West Hollywood sent a notice to members that a person who used the facility April 6 had been diagnosed with bacterial meningitis. Officials at the press conference confirmed the individual was the same man being treated at Cedars Sinai.

"The Los Angeles County Department of Public Health has assured us that there is virtually no risk of exposure in a health club setting," the email stated. "We are notifying you to let you know that Equinox members and staff are safe, we have taken all necessary safety precautions and we will continue to do everything we can to guarantee our members have the best fitness experience possible."

The email included a link to a letter sent by the Department of Public Health to the club.

Meningococcal disease can have severe health impacts and can progress quickly from flu-like symptoms, rashes and a stiff neck, so health officials say early diagnosis and treatment are crucial. If treated quickly, the disease can often be cured with antibiotics.

Last month, Orange County health officials warned public schools about an outbreak of meningococcal infections in Tijuana that began in January.

A teen was being treated at UC Irvine Medical Center for meningocococcemia and had had all of her limbs amputed, prompting her parents to advocate for awareness about a vaccine that protects against the disease.

The bacteria -- Neisseria meningitidis -- that causes the bloodstream infection afflicting 18-year-old Kaitlyn Dobrow also causes meningococcal meningitis, an inflammation of tissue around the brain and spinal cord, according to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Infections from the bacteria can be spread from person to person through respiratory and throat secretions and are common in close quarters -- such as military barracks and college dormitories -- according to the CDC website. Person-to-person contact must be close – such as kissing, sex or sharing food – for the bacteria to spread.

Those who have been in close contact with a patient with meningococcal disease should be treated with antibiotics to prevent the illness from progressing, according to the CDC.

The Associated Press contributed to this story.