Meningitis on three campuses leads to one outbreak and one death

In recent weeks, three different college campuses have seen instances of meningitis — one which resulted in the death of a university employee — but only one of those instances qualified as an outbreak prompting widespread vaccinations of the student body.

Bacterial meningitis is a rare but dangerous infectious disease that affects the brain and spinal cord. It can cause neurological damage, necessitate amputation or lead to death in some cases. It’s relatively rare on college campuses, being more prone to affect adolescents, but there have been a number of outbreaks on campus in the last year, at the University of Oregon, for example, and Princeton University[1], and almost 30 reported infections on campuses between 2013 and 2015, according to data from the National Meningitis Association[2].

In the most recent outbreak, at Santa Clara University, three students had been infected as of Friday, two with meningitis and one with a bloodstream infection caused by the same bacteria. One of the students has been discharged from the hospital, and the other two are in fair condition, according to a university spokeswoman.

In response the university has set up a free vaccination clinic and is encouraging all its students to visit. As of Friday morning, 1,496 of its 9,000 students had been vaccinated, and another 200 who had come in close contact with the infected students had been treated with antibiotics.

While appropriate in Santa Clara’s case, widespread vaccination for the category of meningococcal infection reported there — known as serogroup B — is not recommended for college students and universities, even ones with recent case of meningitis, said Craig Roberts, a past chair of the Emerging Public Health Threats & Emergency Response Coalition for the American College Health Association and an epidemiologist at the University of Wisconsin-Madison Health Service.

Strains of the bacteria in serogroup B have become more common after an effective vaccine for the other four groups — A, C, Y and W, against all of which most college students are already vaccinated — was released about a decade ago. But a vaccination for B group strains was only approved by U.S. Food and Drug Administration last year, Roberts said, and even that has some significant limitations. Group B strains are prone to mutation, so new types that the vaccine hasn’t been tested against pop up from time to time, and the vaccine itself doesn’t appear to have a very long duration.

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