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Princeton may have emergency meningitis vaccines

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Posted at 8:06 AM, Nov 18, 2013
and last updated 2013-11-18 08:06:29-05

By Haley Draznin

(CNN) — Seven cases of type B meningitis are prompting Princeton University officials to meet over the weekend to discuss whether or not they are going to offer vaccinations to the student body, a University spokesman told CNN.

“This is a question we have been considering very carefully. We will be discussing it with our trustees this weekend, and when we have something to announce we will make an announcement,” spokesman Martin Mbugua said.

The University has been working with the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the New Jersey Department of Health to manage the spread of the disease.

“We took the step to allow the option to vaccinate the students, but the decision to do so has not been made yet,” CDC spokeswoman Barbara Reynolds told CNN.

Type B meningitis is a rare strain of the bacterial disease that is not common in the United States. Symptoms include headache, fever, vomiting, and rashes. Left untreated, the disease can progress rapidly, and lead to death or more serious complications such as hearing impairment, brain damage, or limb amputations.

“College outbreaks of meningitis are usually caused by a “C” strain, says Dr. William Schaffner, a past president of the National Foundation for Infectious Diseases. “A group B outbreak is very unusual.”

Schaffner, who is a professor of preventive medicine at Vanderbilt University says in the United States, menigicoccal B usually causes disease in infants, but not very much in adolescents and young adults.

The first case of meningitis B at Princeton developed when a student was returning to school after spring recess in March, according to the New Jersey Department of Health. After additional cases were reported, an outbreak of the disease was declared in May. A total of 6 students and one visitor to Princeton are linked to the Princeton outbreak. The most recent case is a male student diagnosed on November 8th. That student is still hospitalized.

All other patients have recovered.

There is currently no vaccine licensed in the United States that covers type B meningitis. There is only one Meningococcal B vaccine called, Bexsero, a Novartis type B vaccine, which has been approved in Australia and Europe is licensed only in Europe and Australia. However, it is not approved in the United States. The CDC has been working with the U.S. Food and Drug Association about using this particular vaccine in Princeton, Reynolds said.

“We just got the approval from FDA this week to import the vaccine under the Investigational New Drug Application program,” Reynolds said, “Now we’re consulting with the Princeton University officials and New Jersey Health Department officials about the next step.”

“This is the first time we’ve had an outbreak in a population where we have an option to control the outbreak using the serogroup B vaccine, so this is a unique situation in this regard,” Reynolds added.

Meningitis can be spread from person to person by exchanging saliva and other respiratory secretions such as kissing, coughing, sharing drinks, or by close and lengthy proximity like living in the same dorm or household — common interactions among college students, according to the New Jersey Health Department Website.

“No common link has been identified among the cases,” New Jersey health officials said.

Schaffner says that meningococcal bacteria can be carried without symptoms in the back of the throat.

“They can sit up there and not do a thing for months and then suddenly cause disease,” he said.

But he also adds that menigococcal disease in general including the B strains has calmed down in the last 5-8 years. “It’s at a the lowest point since back in the 30’s. Nobody knows why,” he says.

As many as 8,000 undergraduate and graduate students at the Ivy League school could be inoculated with Bexsero.

“If the decision to vaccinate is made, it would be voluntarily,” Reynolds said.

CNN’s Miriam Falco contributed to this report

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