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FDA approves foreign vaccine to disrupt meningitis outbreak at Princeton University

BY ABIGAIL MEIER | DECEMBER 09, 2013 5:00 AM

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Federal health officials have decided to accept a vaccine not originally approved in the United States to fight an outbreak of meningitis at Princeton University. While University of Iowa officials cannot say if they would accept the vaccine if an outbreak occurs here, they did say that will depend on a case-by-case basis.

The Food and Drug Administration has approved the vaccine Bexsero — originally approved in Australia and Europe — to be given to Princeton students with the bacterial meningitis. However, it will not be approved nationwide. Since March, Princeton has seen eight cases of bacterial meningitis.

“The vaccine the FDA approved specifically covers the strain of meningitis that is involved in the outbreak at Princeton,” said Polly Carver-Kimm, the communications director for the Iowa Department of Public Health. “The vaccine given to Princeton students was approved for use on this outbreak only.”

In 2012, there were two cases of the bacterial meningitis in Iowa. Carver-Kimm said Iowa does not plan on accepting the vaccine because the approval was specifically meant to contain the outbreak at Princeton University.

Carver-Kimm said there are five different types of meningitis: bacterial, viral, fungal, parasitic, and non-infectious.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, meningitis is caused by the inflammation of the membranes covering the brain and spinal cord. According to the CDC, bacterial meningitis is usually severe and can cause serious complications, including brain damage, hearing loss, or learning disabilities.

UI spokesman Tom Moore said the UI experienced a serogroup C meningitis outbreak in the early 1990s. He said the outbreak was disrupted by administering a vaccine to the students who had the disease; however, if Iowa were to see cases of the bacterial meningitis today, the idea to accept a vaccine would be determined by the UI Student Health Service and the state public health authorities.

“Times have changed since then, and now every adolescent usually receives a series of meningococcal vaccinations before they go off to college — that is the main mode of prevention,” Moore said.

Lisa James, the associate director for clinic operations at Student Health, said it is hard to give a definite answer to the question of UI health officials accepting this vaccine.

“It’s critical to identify and treat the contacts of the sick students,” she said. “Keeping the communication frequent and answering questions openly is the key to keeping the campus as calm and focused as possible.”

James said the decision would depend on the guidance from local, county and state health officials. She said it is also critical during an outbreak such as meningitis to keep clear communication on campus on the education of prevention.

“The campuses going through these public-health crises seem to be handling this well,” James said. “It’s certainly challenging, and we sure send our support to their students and health officials who are working hard to contain the risk and keep the students safe.”


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