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Princeton University can import vaccine to combat meningitis outbreak

By Noreen O'Donnell

(Reuters) - A meningitis vaccine approved for use in Europe and Australia but not in the United States can be imported to try to stop an outbreak of the disease at Princeton University in New Jersey, federal health officials said.

The Food and Drug Administration agreed this week to the importation of the vaccine, Bexsero, for potential use on the Ivy League campus, Barbara Reynolds, a spokeswoman for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, said on Saturday.

The school, which has about 7,900 students, reported its seventh case of the year this week, said university spokesman Martin Mbugua.

Bexsero, a new vaccine made by Swiss drugmaker Novartis, is designed to protect against a strain of the disease, serogroup B, that is not as common in the United States as it is in other parts of the world, Reynolds said.

The outbreak of serogroup B meningitis at Princeton is rare but not the first of its kind in the United States, Reynolds said.

"What's a little different now is this is the first time we've had an outbreak and also have had the possibility of using a vaccine that could protect against it," she said.

The university's trustees are meeting this weekend to discuss the outbreak. Mbugua would not talk about the nature of those discussions or what day they would be held.

"I will not pre-empt the trustees' discussion by talking about it beforehand," he said.

Reynolds said she did not have a timetable for how quickly the vaccine could be available. Its use would be optional for students at Princeton, she said.

The most recent case at the school was diagnosed last Sunday, Mbugua said. Six of those affected are students, and one was a visitor, he said.

The student who most recently became ill remains hospitalized, according to the New Jersey Department of Health. Five other students have recovered, and the visitor's case is being followed by another state health department. The first case was reported in March.

Meningitis is a serious disease that is spread through coughing and exchanges of saliva, and people living in dormitories or other crowded living quarters are especially at risk.

There is a vaccine available in the United States for other strains of the disease, Reynolds said. The CDC recommends the vaccine for children and students before they head off to college.

Bacterial meningitis can cause the membranes covering the brain and spinal cord to swell. The most severe cases can result in death, hearing loss, brain damage, kidney disease or require the amputation of limbs.

Symptoms include fever, headaches and stiff neck.

(Reporting by Noreen O'Donnell in New York; Additional reporting by Colleen Jenkins; Editing by Eric Beech)

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