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Brandeis University's Community Newspaper — Waltham, Mass.

FDA intervenes in Princeton meningitis outbreak

Published: November 22, 2013
Section: News

Princeton University is fighting through a bout of meningitis type B—a disease without an approved vaccine available in the U.S. Six students and one visitor have contracted the disease since March. All individuals but the most recent case, which began on Nov. 8, have recovered. This strain of the bacteria is not the one commonly found and vaccinated for in the United States.

William Schaffner, professor of Preventative Medicine at Vanderbilt University said, “Usually, when you see this kind of meningitis on the campus, it’s meningitis C. This is very unusual,” as reported by USA Today.

Meningitis type B usually affects young infants and children. Many states, including New Jersey, require students living on campus to be vaccinated for meningitis, although this vaccine does not protect against the type B strain. 40 percent of cases in the U.S. are caused by the type B strain, and this number jumps as high as 80 percent in Australia and parts of Europe according to Bloomberg News.

Dr. Thomas Clark, acting head of the CDC’s meningitis and vaccine preventable diseases branch, told NBC News, “This is a bad disease, and we know how devastating it is. A lot of us had a gut feeling that there would be more cases, and we should get the ball rolling.”

The CDC, New Jersey Department of Health and Princeton University hope that a vaccine unapproved in the U.S. will be able to stabilize the outbreak. Bexsero, produced by the Swiss pharmaceutical company Novartis, is approved for use in Europe and Australia. The vaccine is the first that fights this strain of bacteria. American-based company Pfizer is currently developing a vaccine that has not been approved but whose test results are expected to be made public next year.

Barbara Reynolds, spokesperson for the CDC, said that the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has approved the import of the vaccine from Europe to the Princeton campus. Novartis hopes to eventually get the vaccine approved in the United States.

The vaccine is expected to be ready to be administered on campus within the next two months, and the FDA has approved the vaccine’s import. The students will have the option of receiving the vaccine, but until then, Princeton is encouraging students to wash hands, cover coughs and not share items such as eating utensils and drinking glasses. They have also reached out to students through posters and emails as well as distributed nearly five thousand plastic tumblers that said, “Mine. Not yours,” at the beginning of the semester.

Lynn Bozof, president of the National Meningitis Association, told NBC News, “I think this is really wonderful that all these groups have come together to combat this. Their immediate concern is stopping the outbreak in this contained group.”

Seton Hall and Rider universities located nearby in New Jersey are looking out for meningitis cases.

A spokesperson from Rider said, “We are working with local health authorities to monitor the situation closely. We have taken the precaution of putting our student health services on alert and have informed our students of the basic infection prevention activities they can take.”

The New Jersey Department of Health has recommended that the university not cancel any scheduled activities due to the bacteria and that the public does not need to avoid contact with students. The bacteria are spread by coughing, sneezing, kissing and living in close quarters, such as dormitories. The bacteria are less infectious than influenza and the common cold.

Andrin Oswald, head of Novartis vaccines and diagnostics, said that not everyone who has the meningitis bacteria gets sick. It is likely carried by as much as 10 percent of the Princeton community but is only occurring in about one out of 1,000 students. This rate is much higher than the one to two of 100,000 prevalence rate found in other forms of the bacteria.

Bacterial meningitis, a rare disease in the U.S., can cause swelling of membranes covering the brain and spinal cord in addition to stiff neck, high fever, sensitivity to light, confusion, headaches and vomiting. Nearly 10 percent of those infected die of the bacteria within 48 hours of symptoms appearing. The World Health Organization reports that 170,000 deaths annually are due to meningitis. Only 500 of these deaths are in the United States, according to The New York Times. 20 percent of survivors develop mental disabilities, hearing loss and paralysis.