Public Health Officials confirmed this week that a fourth UCSB student has contracted meningococcal disease — which can lead to the potentially-fatal illness meningitis, making Santa Barbara just one of two locations nationwide to experience infections of meningococcal disease and meningitis.
An infection of membranes surrounding the central nervous system, meningococcal disease kills roughly 1 in 10 people who contract it, according to the Center for Disease Control, or CDC. As the bacterial infection is highly contagious and can spread through respiratory and throat secretions, school officials have sent out multiple warnings against students attending social events where alcohol consumption, smoking and other close personal contact could occur. As of this week, the Interfraternity Council has also decided to cancel fundraising and social events hosted by the Pan-Hellenic community for the rest of the quarter.
Interfraternity Council President Carl Provenzano, third-year biopsychology major, said the Greek community has largely supported curtailing social events due to the serious danger the disease presents.
“Everyone’s been pretty cautious about going out … [and] pretty timid of social events,” Provenzano said. “So everyone’s kind of been on the same page, in terms of creating a consensus in the community that [we should] take two weeks off before break so that this can kind of break apart and disperse.”
One of the infected students is a member of Provenzano’s own fraternity — Alpha Tau Omega — and will remain in the hospital to receive additional treatment after also recently contracting pneumonia, according to Provenzano.
At UCSB, three male students and one female student became infected in November with meningococcal strain B, for which there is currently no approved vaccine in the U.S. The patient in the first case has had both feet amputated as a result of the disease.
The meningitis B outbreak at UCSB follows the news of eight students becoming infected by the same bacterial strain of a different genetic fingerprint at Princeton University. Students at Princeton were treated Monday with an imported vaccination called Bexsero, which has only been approved in Europe and Australia. So far, officials have not recommended treating UCSB students with the vaccine.
Student Health Director Dr. Mary Ferris said the difficulty in diagnosing meningococcal disease, along with its rapid onset, has complicated addressing public concern about the outbreak.
“We can’t be entirely reassuring because of the terrible nature of this disease,” Ferris said in an email. “All we can do is be honest about the danger and do everything we know to reduce the risk. But for many people, that is not satisfactory and they don’t understand why we can’t eliminate it entirely.”
Five hundred students identified as “close contacts” of those infected were originally given prophylactic treatment in late November. According to Ferris, The Santa Barbara County Public Health Department has investigated each case of meningococcal disease and obtained advice from the State Public Health Department and the CDC. This week, school health officials identified a group of 735 students to receive more preventive antibiotic doses, and will continue to offer flu shots and shots for other meningitis strains.
According to Ferris, school health officials will continue to collaborate with Public Health officials and the CDC to “explore all control strategies” until they are confident the outbreak has come to a stop.
A version of this article appeared on page 3 of December 5, 2013′s print edition of The Daily Nexus.