With final exams approaching throughout universities across the United States, the beginning of the semester – particularly the boring details of packing and moving and, oh, getting your updated vaccines – seems like a distant memory.
An increasing number of colleges and universities across the county now recommend or require a vaccine for meningitis, a fast moving infection that spreads through contact and in close quarters. In spite of this, Princeton University is facing an outbreak, and considering recommending importing a vaccine to help.
Meningitis is an inflammation of the covering of the brain and spinal cord that is most often caused by a bacterial, viral, or fungal infection. The onset of disease can occur suddenly and progress rapidly, with the potential to become fatal within a matter of hours. Survivors can be left with debilitating neurological side effects ranging from speech disorders to mental retardation and paralysis.
The outbreak at Princeton is caused by Serogroup B – a strain of meningitis that is uncommon in the US - and was first seen on the campus in March in a student returning from spring break. "Usually, when you see this kind of meningitis on the campus, it's meningitis C," said Dr. William Schaffner, professor of preventive medicine at Vanderbilt University.
Since this first case, Princeton has undertaken public health and awareness campaigns. Yet, despite these efforts, students continue to get sick. With the seventh case diagnosed last week, Princeton is considering recommending the vaccine Bexsero, which has been licensed in Europe and Australia but not in the U.S.
According to Bloomberg, Novartis’s Bexsero is the first vaccine against the meningococcus B strain of the bacteria, which accounts for as much as 80 percent in Australia and parts of Europe. Bexsero was approved for use in Australia and Europe in August and January, respectively, of this year. In light of the outbreak ongoing at Princeton, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has received special permission from the Food and Drug Administration to import the vaccine, and university trustees will decide in the coming days whether or not to recommend the vaccine.
"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," said Barbara Reynolds, a spokeswoman for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, in an interview with Reuters. There are multiple strains of meningitis in circulation, and vaccines for strains A, C, Y, and W-135 are currently available in the U.S.
Sabin has been involved in meningococcal disease advocacy since 2011, focusing on regional symposia, research and awareness in the Latin American region – where serogroup B is very common. Chile and Mexico have both seen outbreaks this year, and Chile instituted a countrywide vaccination campaign targeting children between nine months and five years of age in response.