UC Santa Barbara
Paul Wellman (file)

In response to the meningococcal disease outbreak that hit UCSB last month, students may soon have access to an unlicensed vaccine called Bexsero when they return to school for the winter quarter. Four UCSB students were diagnosed with the disease — a bacterial infection that can lead to meningitis — in November, causing the university and the Santa Barbara County Public Health Department to go on high alert.

One of the ill students, Aaron Loy, had his feet amputated in late November to prevent spread of the bacteria to the rest of his body. Three of the students have recovered and are expected to return to class in January, according to UCSB spokesperson George Foulsham. These four cases were caused by a strain of the meningococcal bacteria known as serogroup B. But the meningococcal vaccine currently licensed in the United States and typically given to young adults does not protect against serogroup B, so UCSB students who were vaccinated against bacterial meningitis could still be vulnerable.

On Friday, the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) released a Q&A on its website that states the process to give UCSB students Bexsero — currently permitted for an at-risk population at Princeton University, which recently experienced its own meningitis outbreak — is underway and that officials are “working under the assumption that the vaccine will be needed at UCSB.” The Bexsero vaccine is currently licensed and used throughout Europe, Australia, and Canada.

According to CDC spokesperson Laura Bellinger, several factors are considered to determine if the vaccine is warranted, including analyzing time between cases, defining the target population, ensuring delivery logistics, confirming it would protect against the strain, and requesting permission from the Food and Drug Administration.

Bellinger said CDC staff have visited UCSB to assess dorm living arrangements and patterns of interactions among students to help determine if Bexsero would be beneficial on campus. Most outbreaks of serogroup B stop at three or four cases, the CDC release states, but how the UCSB outbreak will develop in the near future is unknown.

An employee at UC Riverside was also diagnosed with bacterial meningitis last week and is currently hospitalized. According to The Guardian Express, the male patient is in stable condition, and his risk assessment has been downgraded.

A Cal Poly San Luis Obispo student was also diagnosed with viral meningitis last Thursday, according to a statement released by Cal Poly spokesperson Matt Lazier. Viral meningitis is typically less serious than bacterial meningitis as people usually recover from it within one to two weeks without permanent problems, Lazier said, and the case is thought to be an isolated incident.

There have not been any additional cases diagnosed at UCSB since November 21, and according to Public Health spokesperson Susan Klein-Rothschild, over 1,200 doses of a meningococcal antibiotic were given to UCSB students in the several weeks leading up to the winter break.

Since the process to gain access to an unlicensed vaccine takes up to several weeks, CDC officials warn all students to seek medical attention immediately if they begin to experience meningococcal disease symptoms, which include high fever, severe headache, rash, vomiting, or nausea.


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