By DENISE GRADY
Published: December 5, 2013
Outbreaks of bacterial meningitis have struck two college campuses, though health officials say the episodes — one on the East Coast, the other on the West Coast — are apparently unrelated.
Since mid-November, four students at the University of California, Santa Barbara, have contracted a dangerous type of bacterial meningitis known as strain B, and one of them had to have both feet amputated because the infection had disrupted circulation to his legs. The other three students have recovered, said George Foulsham, a spokesman at the university.
The disease, which inflames the linings of the spinal cord and brain, is the same one that infected seven students and a visitor at Princeton University from March to November. But the two outbreaks are probably coincidental, Dr. Amanda Cohn, a meningitis expert at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, said in an interview. Tests show that even though the bacteria are the same strain, they have genetic differences, she said, adding that while campus outbreaks are not common, they do occur.
“We are looking at it closely on college campuses, but at this point it’s not out of the scope, but is at the higher end of what we normally see in a year,” Dr. Cohn said. “So we don’t suspect there’s anything changing.”
Last year there were 160 cases of strain B meningitis in the United States. It is not clear where the disease comes from or why outbreaks occur. Some people carry the bacteria in their throats without getting sick, but they may transmit them to others who, for reasons that are not understood, are more vulnerable and become ill. The meningitis vaccines that are widely used in the United States and recommended for college students do not protect against strain B.
The disease is spread by respiratory secretions, but is not considered highly contagious. People are thought to be at risk if they have been in close contact or share cups or eating utensils with someone who became ill. Those who may have been exposed are advised to take antibiotics preventively, and so far about 1,000 of the 18,000 undergraduates at Santa Barbara have been given the drugs, Mr. Foulsham said.
Students are being urged to seek medical help immediately if they have fevers, headaches, a stiff neck or flulike symptoms. Citing medical privacy concerns, Mr. Foulsham would not disclose information about any of the affected students.
But The Los Angeles Times and other news media outlets have reported that one student, Aaron Loy, a freshman lacrosse player, had to have his feet amputated. A spokesman for the family could not be reached, but Mr. Loy’s parents have chronicled his illness on a website, describing a grueling series of operations and a slow, painful recovery.
Bacterial meningitis is fatal in about 11 percent of cases, and among survivors, about one in five has severe consequences like amputations or brain damage.
Health officials have recommended that all students at Princeton be vaccinated against strain B meningitis, and the injections are expected to start next week, Dr. Cohn said. The vaccine, called Bexsero, has been approved in Europe and Australia, but not in the United States. However, the Food and Drug Administration has given permission for it to be used at Princeton. So far, the vaccine has not been recommended for Santa Barbara students. Dr. Cohn said it was recommended for Princeton because the outbreak did not seem to be dying out.