Princeton Meningitis Outbreak Prompts Vaccine Import to U.S.

A meningitis outbreak at Princeton University of a strain not covered by vaccines available in the U.S. has prompted federal health officials to approve import of the drug in an effort to stop the illness.

Trustees at the Princeton, New Jersey-based Ivy League school where at least seven students since March have developed infections with the meningococcus B strain of the bacteria, will consider this weekend whether to use the vaccine, made by Novartis AG, said Martin Mbugua, a spokesman for the school.

The outbreak is the first of the meningitis B strain in a specific group, in which health officials have had the option to vaccinate, according to Barbara Reynolds, a spokeswoman for the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta. The CDC had requested and received permission last week from the Food and Drug Administration to import the vaccine, a necessary protocol since the treatment hasn’t been approved in the U.S.

The vaccine “could be used in a campuswide vaccination campaign if it were decided that that was the best course of action,” Reynolds said in a telephone interview. Vaccination would be voluntary, she said. Princeton and the New Jersey Department of Health have been working for a number of months on the university outbreak, Reynolds said in a telephone interview.

Princeton’s trustees are still deciding how to proceed and whether to inoculate, Mbugua said. “We will be discussing it with our trustees this weekend, and when we have something to announce we will make an announcement,” he said in an e-mail.

B Strain

Meningitis can be caused by viruses, fungi and bacteria, with bacterial meningitis causing about 170,000 deaths globally each year, according to the World Health Organization. The infection is marked by an inflammation in the thin lining surrounding the brain and spinal cord, causing symptoms including stiff neck, high fever, sensitivity to light, confusion, headaches and vomiting. As many as 10 percent of those infected die within 48 hours after symptoms start, according to the WHO. Brain damage, hearing loss or learning disabilities may affect as many as 20 percent of survivors, the Geneva-based agency said on its website.

Novartis’s Bexsero is the first vaccine against the meningococcus B strain of the bacteria, which accounts for 40 percent of cases in the U.S. and as much as 80 percent in Australia and parts of Europe. The vaccine was cleared for sale in Europe last January and in Australia last August.

“We are coordinating with Princeton University, the CDC and the New Jersey Department of Health to address this public health threat,” said Novartis spokeswoman Julie Masow in an e-mail yesterday.

Vaccine Makers

Novartis, Sanofi and GlaxoSmithKline Plc all make shots available in Europe and the U.S. that protect against four of the five major strains of the disease, not including the B strain that is circulating at Princeton. The other strains are A, C, Y and W-135. Pfizer Inc., the New York-based drugmaker, has a vaccine for meningitis B that has begun the final stage of development. The company has said it will share data from a phase II trial of the vaccine next year.

Seven students have been infected, with the first diagnosed after a return from spring break in March, according to a statement from the New Jersey Department of Health. By early May, three students were diagnosed with the bacteria that spreads through kissing, sharing drinking glasses and other forms of close contact. The most recent patient developed symptoms on Nov. 8, almost eight months later.

Princeton, the New Jersey health department and local health officials are trying to find close contacts for patients who were infected and may be vulnerable themselves to the infection. Those people are getting antibiotics in an effort to prevent an infection, according to the state health department.

Finding Links

Investigators haven’t been able to find a link between the infections, though five of the seven are identical. One is similar to the others, though researchers can’t yet tell if it’s an exact match, while the latest infection is still being tested.

Bacterial meningitis can occur sporadically, particularly in close quarters seen on college campuses. It’s spread through respiratory and throat secretions and close contact, though it’s typically less infectious than viruses, including those that cause influenza.

Princeton is a member of the Ivy League, a group of eight selective colleges in the Northeastern U.S. About 5,200 undergraduate and 2,600 graduate students attend the school in Princeton, New Jersey, according to its website. Chartered in 1746, alumni of Princeton include First Lady Michelle Obama and Supreme Court Justices Elena Kagan, Sonia Sotomayor and Samuel Alito.

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