PRINCETON, N.J. ― Princeton University officials decided Monday to make available a meningitis vaccine that hasn’t been approved in the U.S. to stop the spread of the sometimes deadly disease on campus.
The university said doses of the vaccine for the type B meningococcal bacteria are to be available in December and February for all undergraduate students, graduate students who live in dorms and university employees who have sickle cell disease and other medical conditions that make them more susceptible to meningitis. The university said the plan was recommended by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
The vaccinations are to be paid for by the university and are not mandatory. Officials say they are most effective in two doses.
Since March, seven cases of meningitis have been confirmed on the New Jersey campus with six students and a visitor diagnosed, the most recent last week. None of the cases has been fatal.
Last week, the federal Food and Drug Administration approved importing the vaccine, Bexsero, for possible use at the Ivy League school. Princeton spokesman Martin Mbugua said university officials considered a number of factors before deciding to move ahead with the plan, but he declined to say what those factors were.
The CDC says the outbreak at Princeton is the first in the world since the vaccine against the type B meningococcal bacteria was approved in Europe and Australia this year, the only one for use against the strain. The vaccine is in the approval process in the U.S.
Bacterial meningitis is a disease that can cause swelling of the membranes covering the brain and spinal cord. It’s fairly rare in the United States, but those who get it develop symptoms quickly and can die in a couple of days. Survivors can suffer mental disabilities, hearing loss and paralysis.
The B strain is among the most common in Europe and also has been found frequently in the U.S. Last year, for instance, it accounted for 160 of the 480 meningitis cases in the U.S. tallied by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. About one in 10 young adults with the strain dies. One in five develops a permanent disability.
Under New Jersey state law, students who live in dorms must have vaccinations against other strains of meningitis. But a different type of vaccine is needed for type B, said Pritish Tosh, a Mayo Clinic researcher who develops vaccines. He said that Bexsero, sold by Novartis, has had good results so far where it has been used.
“Since there is a product available,” he said, “it makes a lot of sense of me if the public health authorities go for it.”
Meningitis can be spread through kissing, coughing or lengthy contact. Campuses, with their concentration of young adults in close quarters, make dangerous breeding grounds for the bacteria.
Princeton school told students to wash their hands, cover their mouths when coughing and not share items such as drinking glasses and eating utensils.
On campus, students were mostly calm about the possibility of being given a not-yet-approved vaccine.
“I’m honestly not too worried,” said Paul Przytycki, a 23-year-old graduate student in computer science from Bethesda, Md. “When the vaccines come in, I’m going to get vaccinated just to be safe, but no one I know has been affected, so it’s not too scary yet.”