The University of California system is picking up the tab for more than 18,000 unlicensed meningitis vaccines recently approved for specific UCSB students and faculty. All undergraduate students, graduate students who live in university-owned housing, and others with certain medical conditions are eligible to receive the free two-part vaccine, Bexsero, beginning Monday.
Four cases of meningitis serogroup B — a strain that is not protected by the vaccine currently approved in the United States — were diagnosed at UCSB last November. Three of the students have since recovered and returned to classes, but freshman and lacrosse player Aaron Loy had his feet amputated in November to stop the disease from spreading. Loy has been in recovery and teamed up with a prosthetist who specializes in treating young athletes, according to the Caring Bridge website his parents frequently update. Loy recently returned to the UCSB lacrosse field sidelines for the 2014 opening game — the Gauchos won 20-6 against USC — according to the Pacific Coast Shootout website.
The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approved the unlicensed vaccine for UCSB in late January, but it’s still unclear how many eligible students and faculty plan to show up to the two-week clinic. “The whole meningitis scare has died down,” said senior Jonathan Olive-Jones, explaining that heightened precautions — not sharing drinks at parties, for instance — have become more lax. “No one is really talking about it anymore. I saw the posters, but I thought they were old,” he added.
According to the Center for Disease Control (CDC) website, the bacteria that causes meningitis spreads through lengthy or very close contact, and is much harder to catch than the flu, but causes many of the same symptoms including high fever, vomiting, or nausea.
CDC spokesperson Jason McDonald explained it’s too soon to tell if the spread of the disease has ended at UCSB since the last case was diagnosed in November. The only way to know for sure if students are still at risk will be if another case is identified. McDonald added that a person could be a carrier without displaying symptoms.
At Princeton University, eight students were struck with meningitis B between March and November of 2013. School officials speculated that transmission rates would subside during summer break, but additional cases appeared about a month after classes resumed last fall. The FDA approved the unlicensed Bexsero vaccine for undergraduate students and some faculty after the sixth student was diagnosed last fall. After that, two additional cases were diagnosed in November, which undoubtedly motivated students to show up to the Princeton clinic. In December, 5,382 of the 5,800 eligible individuals received the first shot, McDonald said. This week officials are distributing the second dose of Bexsero — which is licensed in Europe, Canada, and Australia. The strain in the Princeton cases is the same one that affected the four UCSB students, but experts say the cases are not connected.
At UCSB, officials sent a letter to the campus community informing students about the upcoming clinic, and posters appeared across campus. “At the outbreak, we were really freaked out,” said UCSB senior Christian Alonso, adding that the vaccines now seem “a little late in the game.” But he noted the university has made considerable effort to inform students.
UCSB freshman Caroline Ledna said she plans to get the shot because she’s on a sports team and in a sorority, plus her mom persuaded her. “You’re better safe than sorry,” she reasoned. But she said opinions among her peers seem to be a mixed bag.
“Everyone is a little ‘meningitis-ed’ out. Now it’s kind of a dull understanding,” Alonso said. “I would have 100 percent gotten it during the outbreak, because it was an immediate danger to my health. Right now it seems like most of it has passed,” Alonso said, adding that students rushed to wait in long lines to receive preventative antibiotics in November. “I think it should be still taken seriously. Everyone should probably get it to be on the safe side.”
NPR recently published a story about a man who had all of his toes and nine fingers amputated after being diagnosed with meningitis B just weeks before he graduated from University of Kansas in 2004. In 2010, Ohio University student Andrea Robinson unexpectedly died from meningitis B, after eight people were diagnosed with the bacterial disease in Athens between 2008 and 2010, according to The Athens NewsM.
The UCSB clinic will be held at the RecCen and open until March 7; the second dose will be distributed in the spring.