Princeton University to offer students meningitis vaccine

     A detail of a poster discouraging the spread of meningitis is shown. (Image courtesy of Charles Fortin, Princeton University)

    A detail of a poster discouraging the spread of meningitis is shown. (Image courtesy of Charles Fortin, Princeton University)

    Princeton University is preparing to offer its students a meningitis vaccine — not approved in the United States, but already cleared for sale in Europe and Australia.


    The Food and Drug Administration is making the vaccine — Bexsero, from drug maker Novartis — available to Princeton to help curb the outbreak of the bacteria infection that has sickened six students and a campus visitor.

    Late Monday afternoon, university officials released a statement saying they expect the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to recommend the vaccine for all Princeton undergraduates and any grad student who lives on campus. The vaccine will also be available to a short list of others on campus with certain health conditions.

    The meningitis vaccine commonly used in the U.S. does not ward off the strain of bacterial infection, meningococcus B, which has caused illness at Princeton.

    University, state and federal health officials have been hunting since March for links between the seven cases.

    “I don’t think anyone knows why the serogroup B is showing up,” said Susan Even, executive director of the University of Missouri Student Health Center. “That’s why it’s of interest and great concern because that has not been a typical pattern in the college-age group.”

    Students will need two doses of the recommended vaccine to get maximum protection. The first shots will be available in early December, and follow-up doses in February, university officials said.

    There were 480 cases of bacterial meningitis in the U.S. in 2012. About 160 cases were caused by the serogroup B strain, according to a CDC spokeswoman.

    When you count the illness and death caused by all types of meningitis, approximately one in 10 people die from the infection; 15 percent to 20 percent of cases end in permanent disability.

    Antibiotics help clear infection from the body but don’t stop a toxin produced by the bacteria, Even said. That toxin can cause inflammation to the brain and blood vessels, and sometimes results in neurologic damage or the loss of fingers, toes or limbs.

    Princeton has been working on several fronts to quash the spread of disease — and increase awareness.

    Droplets of saliva carry the germs that cause meningitis, and the germs can survive on food or drink utensils. The illness is also passed through intimate contact, including kissing.

    Princeton has included those messages in blast emails and on posters around campus. Charlie Fortin, a junior from Atlanta, said Princeton has smartly timed some of its health communications just before big party weekends.

    Deputy Dean of Undergraduate Students Thomas Dunne included this warning in an email just prior to the football game against Yale:

    “Meningitis can be fatal and the progression of the disease can be rapid. Students with a high fever should seek immediate medical treatment at University Health Services.”

    “A lot people sort of have the misconception that if you share an alcoholic drink, the alcohol will kill the bacteria, which is not true,” said Fortin, a 21-year-old who is pursuing a certificate in health policy.

    Fortin said recent national media attention might help students to take the meningitis outbreak seriously and change their habits.

    “I think for a lot of college students, sharing food and drinks with your friends is sort of a sign of trust, a thing you do in the dining hall and in each others’ rooms,” Fortin said. “So it’s sort hard to change that even though there’s a lot of consistent messaging about not sharing.”

    “Seven people doesn’t really feel like an outbreak,” Fortin said.

    Until the CDC’s move to import the Bexsero vaccine — among some students at least — Fortin said the rash of stomach flu cases on campus “felt more urgent.”

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