In Wake of Meningitis Outbreak at Princeton U., Health Officials Try to Reassure Residents

vaccineThe Princeton health officer and a representative from the local board of health tried to reassure officials and the public tonight that they are monitoring the meningitis outbreak at Princeton University and that local community members are not at risk.

An eighth Princeton University student was diagnosed with meningitis on Nov. 21. The student developed symptoms last Wednesday,  went to the university’s health center, and was taken to a local hospital Thursday.

“This outbreak, thus far, is confined strictly to Princeton University students who are undergraduates and are usually underclassmen,” said Bob Hary, the town’s interim health officer.

Hary said the town does what is called a “direct contact investigation” as soon as possible after a student is diagnosed. Health officials then determine who had direct contact with the sick person, and those people receive prophylactic medications.

“Typically the university has been able to treat students within hours of a case. My job is to then do interviews and get case contacts and make sure they are treated,” Hary said. “The next major thing is education and public awareness. We’ve put information on the website here and in the public school system. The good news on this is that there is a proposed vaccine.”

Princeton University will follow a Centers for Disease Control recommendation to provide undergraduate and graduate students who live in dormitories with a vaccine that helps protect against meningitis B. Federal health officials agreed earlier this month to import Bexsero,  a vaccine licensed in Europe and Australia but not the U.S., in response to the  outbreak. Bexsero will be approved for use only in the Princeton community. University officials hope to make the first of two doses of the vaccine available in early December.

“The big thing I want to convey  is that the people in the university cases are no older than undergraduates, and no residents have been sick,” Hary said. “It is a severe and relatively uncommon event, and we feel we get almost all, if not 100 percent, of the cases that occur. If there were cases in community, we would know about it.”

Councilwoman Jo Butler said many younger residents and coaches come into contact with Princeton University students through sports activities at the school and volunteer activities, and that many people are concerned about the spread of the disease. Almost 300 students form the community participate in a basketball league at the university, and about five dozen students are part of a wrestling league that uses campus facilities. Corner House also relies on volunteers from the university.

“I just want to be able to reassure people that the interests of the community are being represented,” Butler said.

Some residents are also concerned about students coming home for Thanksgiving break and spreading the bacteria.

Board of Health member and physician George DiFerdinando, Jr. said the disease is spread by sharing water bottles and beer bottles, sharing toothbrushes, by kissing, or other types of intimate contact.

“It’s surprising how intimate contact has to be to spread it,” DiFerdinando said. “The close contact is closer than contact at a sports event. Except for water bottles — people should not be sharing water bottles. The CDC did produce guidance to athletic teams in response to this outbreak.”

In March, a female student who was away from campus for spring recess developed symptoms of meningococcal disease when returning to the area. Then a visitor on the campus April 6-8 was diagnosed with bacterial meningitis after returning to another state. A male student was diagnosed with bacterial meningitis in May. A male student who lives out of state developed symptoms on his way home for summer recess in May. Another male student who developed symptoms in June while traveling abroad. The sixth case was a female student who developed symptoms on Oct. 1 and is still recovering. No common link has been identified among the cases, state officials said.

Meningitis can be spread from person to person. The bacteria are spread by exchanging respiratory and throat secretions during close contact (for example, coughing or kissing) or lengthy contact, especially if people are living in the same dorm or household. Many people carry the bacteria in their throats without getting meningococcal disease. Since so many people carry the bacteria, most cases of meningococcal disease appear to be random and aren’t linked to other cases.

Although anyone can get meningococcal disease, adolescents and college freshmen who live in dormitories are at an increased risk. The bacteria that cause meningococcal disease are less infectious than the viruses that cause the flu. You can help prevent the spread of illnesses by covering your mouth and nose when coughing or sneezing, by washing your hands, and by avoiding sharing utensils, water bottles or other items contaminated by saliva or respiratory secretions.