Alumni face college campus spread of meningitis infection

Claire Goldsmith

Recent unconnected outbreaks of meningitis have caused Harvard-Westlake alumni at two college campuses to take preventative measures against the disease, including recieving injections of an unlicensed European meningitis vaccine.

Those at Princeton University received the first dose of a foreign meningitis vaccination Dec. 9 —12 after eight cases of meningococcal-B, a virulent strain of bacterial meningitis, developed at the school during the past nine months.

With the involvement of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the outbreak has become a prominent topic of discussion at Princeton, students said.

“Students love to talk about it,” Princeton freshman Arianna Lanz ’13 said. “There’s a saying that ‘nothing ever happens in Princeton’ and that there’s ‘never any trouble in the Orange Bubble,’ so it’s a little exciting when it appears that the bubble is going to burst.”

Meningitis is an infection of the meninges, membranes that surround the brain and spinal cord.

Meningococcal meningitis, which students at Princeton have contracted, is caused by the bacterium Neisseria meningitides.

According to the National Institute of Health, about 2,600 people per year in the United States get the illness, and between 10 and 15 percent of cases are fatal.

Another 10 to 15 percent result in brain damage, deafness and other residual effects.

Although the state of New Jersey requires a meningitis vaccination before students enroll in any university, the standard shot does not protect against this rarer form of the disease.

After the seventh case since March developed at Princeton, the school and the CDC arranged for a European vaccination called Bexsero to be administered to students to prevent a continuing spread of meningitis.

Bexsero, which is manufactured by the Swiss pharmaceutical company Novartis, is as of yet unlicensed by the Food and Drug Administration.

The vaccine was approved for use in the European Union in late January of this year and in Australia in August.

Princeton provided the vaccinations to all undergraduate students, graduate students who live in dormitories and others in the community who were particularly susceptible to the illness.

According to a poll by the Daily Princetonian, 76 percent of students planned to get the vaccination.

Overall, 5,268 individuals, 91 percent of those eligible, received the vaccine, a university spokesperson said.

“We have been given a lot of information, countless emails, flyers and talks,” freshman Morgan Hallock ’13 said. “One of my [water polo] teammates is on the Student Health committee here at Princeton, and she has been working non-stop to host informational meetings, make videos for awareness and let people know about the options regarding the vaccines.”

Princeton organizations distributed information about the outbreaks and also gave students plastic cups with the slogans like “Mine Not Yours” to discourage sharing of cups and utensils.

Because meningitis spreads through saliva, the CDC and Princeton encouraged students to be careful about their hygienic practices, cover their mouths when coughing and avoid sharing drinks or food.

“I would definitely say that the university has given me sufficient information about the meningitis including how to best avoid it and what symptoms should worry me,” Princeton student Chad Kanoff ’13 said.

The CDC describes potential symptoms as a high fever, headache, stiff neck, nausea, vomiting, confusion, sensitivity to light and, later in the illness, a rash or spots on arms, legs and torso.

The health organization took definitive action in the Princeton outbreak in part because adolescents are at an increased risk of contracting meningitis, and the risk increases when people live in close quarters and share food and drink.

The CDC has not recommended that the school cancel events and has said that Princeton students should not worry about spreading meningitis to their families when they return home over the holidays.

Talk of meningitis has flooded the campus and news vans have lined the campus to interview students receiving the vaccination.

“I have received messages from friends and relatives who are more afraid of the disease for me than I am for myself,” Lanz said. “There are often competitions and tournaments on campus for students of all levels of education from many different institutions, and participation in those has significantly decreased due to fear of the illness.”

“The only person [with meningitis] I knew was a freshman girl, but she is back and in classes already,” Kanoff said. “I am not that worried about the meningitis and would say that it hasn’t changed the campus atmosphere at all.”

Kanoff, Lanz and Hallock all elected to receive the vaccine when it was administered last week.

“The vaccine was free, easy to receive and came with minor health risks,” Lanz said. “The danger of getting meningitis or meningococcal disease is far, far worse, and I would take advantage of any opportunity to improve my health.”

Four students at the University of California, Santa Barbara also contracted meningitis B, and the State of California  has asked the CDC to consider approving the vaccine for use at UCSB.

One freshman lacrosse player had to undergo an amputation of both his feet due to complications from meningitis, according to NBC News.

The school provided antibiotics to students close to those with meningitis.

“I was pretty worried, especially when the outbreaks first began,” UCSB sophomore Liliana Muscarella ’12 said. “I was hyper-aware of not touching anything and always sanitizing my hands. I became a bit of a hypochondriac—always thinking I felt a neck-ache or nausea coming on.”

USCB officials asked students to refrain from “social events that involve close personal contact, alcohol and/or smoking and where eating utensils and cups/glasses may be shared.”

“Student Health on campus has been sending out email updates with each new person affected, and also a description of the symptoms,” Muscarella said. “It is pretty helpful and reassuring that we’re being looked out for, but I still get worried that someone who contracted meningitis might have sneezed on the desk I’m sitting at in class or something like that.”

The clusters at Princeton and UCSB are not connected, the CDC said.

A staff member at University of California, Riverside, has also been treated for the disease.