Photo by See-ming Lee.
The only thing I knew about meningitis up until recently was that my teenage crush, Johnny Rotten had it, sneered about in his autobiography Rotten: No Blacks, No Dogs, No Irish. I filed it away in my list of disorders and diseases that only the English carry (yeah, I know Lydon was Irish). Within the past few months, my Facebook feed has upgraded meningitis to the list of things Germans worry too much about.
Meningitis is rare. I had never actually met anyone that had it. And nobody else seemed too worried about either – until a few months ago when Siegessäule mentioned something about a vaccination recommendation being expected from those above. And it came. Three gay men in Berlin had died from the disease since October 2012. Facebook now had a steady stream of comments from the more lavender shade of my friends about getting an “Impfung” (a quite nasty little combi word of “imp” and “fungus”). It was on my mind but tucked away along with the thought that I should get some Haftpflichtversicherung.
Then deaths in the gay party scene came up at the Exberliner editorial meeting this week. I shot a text to a friend and confirmed speculation: two in the last two weeks. One of them I knew. While there are several rumours of why these two men may have died, the official medical reason was meningitis. A little more chatting around and I found out it could be passed simply through kissing. No need to even get the clothes off. My loose lips began to tremble a little. Time to call the doctor.
With death possible within as little as 24 hours after the onset of symptoms, there was no time to waste and whether I’d been snogging for sex or simply sharing a kiss, there seemed to be plenty of opportunity for the nasty little thing to claim me.
I went in the next morning to get it done. Luckily, I go to a pretty gay-friendly doctor – the kind with plenty of HIV brochures in the hallway – and there wasn’t any hassle getting the vaccine. But that’s apparently not always the case. One friend’s doctor had to Google it when he brought it up with her. I never even saw my doctor in order to get it, but since it’s a disease with a specific risk group, gay men, and not a worry for the general population, I had to cough up €47 at the Apotheke next door and show the receptionist the receipt before I could get the jab (according to my Krankenkasse, it’s approximately €47 everywhere). But a quick prick 10 minutes later and I was out the door.
The health insurance companies are handling the outbreak like that friend who owes you for dinner the night before but then “forgets”. You have to chase them down. They will pay the full amount back, but only after you cough up first and only if you’re a gay man – a member of the identified risk group. Ironically, they won’t ask you if you’re a gay man when you call them up, (it’s too “sensitive”), so hypochondriac straights take note: it may be time for a coming out party.
Part of the issue is that they aren’t paying that much attention to it in the first place. It’s a relatively rare disease targeting a small segment of the population (albeit disproportionately large in Berlin). The aforementioned case of the Googling doctor and a Krankenkasse rep caught off guard also shows the level of awareness in the general populace.
Technically it’s meningococcal meningitis or “Meningokokken”, a specific strain of meningitis. When you call your Krankenkasse, make sure you use that specific word.
Problems with the Krankenkasse and doctors or not, five deaths was enough to convince me to get on the inoculation bandwagon (even despite the protests of a few hippie Facebook friends). A sore arm and a €50 deposit seems like a good alternative to sudden death. And with the impending big international kiss-in against Russia’s extreme anti-gay laws on September 8, lay down the dough now. Homos have had their share of ground zeros, let’s not make Berlin one. Or let Putin be able to say “I told you so.” That would be rotten.