PRINCETON — The outbreak of meningitis at Princeton University, where seven students have been infected since March, has prompted the federal Centers for Disease Control to explore the use of an emergency vaccine, a CDC official said today.
The most recent case of meningitis at Princeton was diagnosed last weekend. The sixth case was identified a month earlier.
The CDC said today that Bexsero, a vaccine licensed in Europe and Austrialia, was being imported in the hopes it would prevent additional cases. NBC News was the first to report the CDC’s plan.
This is the first time a vaccine from overseas will be procured to address an outbreak in the United States, CDC spokeswoman Barbara Reynolds said.
The strain of meningitis contracted by the students at Princeton — sero group B — is unique to this country, Reynolds said. For that reason, there is no FDA approved vaccine to combat it here.
The strain is more common in Europe or Australia, which does produce a vaccine. FDA has allowed the CDC to obtain as “an investigational drug,” on am emergency basis she said.
The FDA approval came late this week, she said. Decisions about how it will be distributed or when it will be available have not been made. No vaccinations will take place over the weekend, she added.
“We are not talking about making it widely available around the country,” Reynolds said.
This is not the first time this form of meningitis has occurred in the United States, Reynolds said, although she did not know how long it had been since the last outbreak. At that time however, a vaccine was not available elsewhere in the world.
The extraordinary step of asking the FDA’s permission to obtain the vaccine outside the country reflects both the concern over what is a “very serious’ illness, and the ability for the first time to request a vaccine from overseas known to address an outbreak here, she said.
Meg Fisher, medical director for the Unterberg Children’s Hospital at Monmouth Medical Center in Long Branch, praised the CDC’s “unique and unusual” approach to combatting the outbreak. Novartis and Pfizer are developing a serogroup B vaccine here but it is not licensed yet, she said.
“The only concern is that there are different serogroup b strains in different parts of the world so it is not a given that the European or Australian vaccine will be effective against the Princeton strain. However, it is certainly worth a try,” said Fisher, a renowned infectious disease specialist. “The definition of an epidemic is an increase over the expected number so this definitely constitutes an epidemic. The length of the epidemic is unusual as well.”
The CDC is working collaboratively with the university and the state, she added.
Martin Mbugua, Princeton University’s director of media relations, said that the university was carefully weighing its options and had no announcements to make.
“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,” Mbugua said in an email tonight.
The Bexsero vaccine provides protection against meningitis B, a strain of the bacteria not covered by the meningitis vaccine in the United States. State law requires all students living in university housing in New Jersey to receive a meningitis vaccination.
The Bexsero vaccine would only be available in the Princeton community, Dr. Thomas Clark, acting head of the Centers for Disease Control’s meningitis and vaccine preventable diseases branch, told NBC News.
“The New Jersey Department of Health has been working daily with Princeton University to investigate the meningitis outbreak,” said state spokeswoman Donna Leusner.
red-cup.JPGOne of the 5,000 16-ounce red cups handed out by the university in an effort to raise awareness and prevent meningitis from being spread across Princeton University’s campus.Courtesy of Kathy Wagner
In September, Princeton officials distributed 5,000 red, 16-ounce cups with the label “Mine. Not Yours.” in big letters to discourage students from sharing beverages, one of the common ways the meningitis bacteria can spread.
Symptoms of meningitis include headache, fever, vomiting, rashes and sensitivity to light. It is often mistaken for the flu. Most people recover, though the disease can have severe complications, including brain damage, hearing loss and learning disabilities.
Meningitis can be spread from person to person via kissing, coughing or lengthy contact, especially for those living in the same dorm or household.