Princeton University Students To Get Imported Meningitis Vaccine
November 18, 2013

Princeton University Students To Get Imported Meningitis Vaccine

Lawrence LeBlond for - Your Universe Online

A small, but worrisome meningitis outbreak that has affected several people at Princeton University has left school health officials looking for a vaccine that is not available in the United States.

On November 10, 2013, a seventh student this year fell ill from bacterial meningitis at Princeton, according to the New Jersey Department of Health (NJDH). The meningitis has been identified as “Type B,” which is not covered by a standard vaccine administered in the US.

The US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) said that the vaccine needed for the Princeton meningitis outbreak is common in Europe and Australia and has agreed to allow importation to try to stop the outbreak from growing.

Fearing the meningitis could continue to spread, Princeton officials warned students to stop sharing drinks and to avoid kissing. The school started a campaign to make students more aware of the dangers of meningitis and implemented that awareness by hanging bright orange posters telling them to “keep healthy and carry on” and handing out red cups with labels stating “Mine. Not Yours.”

This campaign was carried out after the sixth person was diagnosed with the bacterial disease, but it seems warnings are not working as intended since the seventh student became ill last week. Although the previous six patients fully recovered from the disease, which can be fatal in some cases, the school’s leaders made the call for more help from abroad.

New Jersey law requires that meningitis vaccines be given to almost all undergraduates at Princeton and other colleges and universities around the state. And while the vaccine used in the US protects against most strains of meningitis, it has not worked against the Princeton “Type B” cases.

Barbara Reynolds, a spokeswoman for the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), said on Saturday that the imported vaccine, called Bexsero, would protect students from the Type B strain of bacterial meningitis.

Bexsero is a new experimental vaccine developed by drug maker Novartis, a company with more than 50 drugs under its belt, including the ADHD drug Ritalin. The drug is designed to protect against serogroup B, a meningitis strain not as common in the US as it is in other regions of the world.

Reynolds noted that the Type B outbreak at Princeton is rare but it is not the first case of its kind in the US. "What's a little different now is this is the first time we've had an outbreak and also have had the possibility of using a vaccine that could protect against it."

Martin Mbugua, a spokesman for Princeton, told AFP on Saturday that the school’s trustees were meeting over the weekend to discuss the outbreak, but would not divulge into the nature of the conversations.

Despite getting FDA approval for Bexsero to come to the US, Reynolds said no timetable has yet to be set on when shipments of the vaccine will come. And the use of the vaccine will be optional for students, not mandatory.

The student who most recently became ill remains hospitalized, according to the NJDH. Five previous patients were treated and made full recoveries. A sixth person who was a visitor to Princeton University is being followed by another state’s department of health. A total of seven cases have been reported since March 2013.

Meningitis is most commonly spread through coughing or exchanging saliva. Campus life gives meningitis an easy transmission route due to the often cramped and crowded living conditions in school dormitories. Outbreaks are often pronounced in these situations due to increased odds of sharing drinks, cigarettes, utensils, kissing and other activities.

Though bacterial meningitis is not as contagious as the common cold or influenza, it does spread through close contact. However, where a cold or flu can be caught by being near a sick person, bacterial meningitis requires closer contact. Still, just because someone avoids an ill person does not mean they are safe from infection. People can catch the disease from carriers who have the bacteria in their system but do not have symptoms. As many as 25 percent of the population are known as carriers.

According to CDC data, nearly 500 people have died in the US each year from 2003 to 2007, the most recent data available.

Symptoms of bacterial meningitis include headache, high fever and a stiff neck. Meningitis can progress rapidly from the onset of symptoms and if left untreated can lead to shock or death. Other complications of meningitis include hearing loss, brain damage and kidney disease.

A big concern right now is the small number of cases. Most students have felt little urgency to change their habits due to the limited number of patients who have fallen ill. Still, the topic has been a common conversation among students, according to a report from the NY Times.

“It’s so at an arm’s length that it’s not something that’s real for most people,” said Emilie Burke, 20, a sophomore. Still, she told the NY Times, her rugby teammates have stopped sharing water bottles and people at her office job had begun wiping down phones between uses.

When asked if students were cutting back on sexual encounters, Burke had this to say: “Maybe it’s something people think about during the day, but it’s not something they’re thinking about on a Saturday night.”

Some students, however, said they are heeding the suggestions, but are mixed on whether they plan to receive the vaccine or not.

“If I got meningitis, I would know early on,” Andrew Jeon, an English major from Wayne, New Jersey, told Bloomberg in an interview. “We’ve gotten plenty of e-mails about how not to share cups.”

Eva Ge, a first-year graduate student in chemistry from Ithaca, NY, said she would get the vaccine.

“I know my lab mates and I got the flu shot after a recent e-mail about another case,” Ge told Bloomberg. “It’s less an issue for grad students since undergrads eat and live together.”