Student Health Services Currently Offers New Meningitis Vaccinations to Students on Campus

In response to last quarter’s meningitis surfacing, Student Health Services is now offering a not yet licensed vaccine against the potentially fatal bacterial disease, providing students with shots between now until next Friday, March 7, in the Multi-Activity Court of the UCSB Recreation Center.

Despite pending approval for the general United States, the serogroup B meningococcal vaccine — known as Bexsero — has been approved for use at UCSB and Princeton University by the Food and Drug Administration and has already been licensed for use in Europe, Canada and Australia. The temporary clinic is now administering the first shot of a two-stage vaccination, with the vaccination’s second shot being offered at least another month from now, although these dates have not yet been set. Meningitis took hold of campus last fall, when four cases appeared and one of them — the case of freshman lacrosse player Aaron Loy — resulted in his foot being amputated due to complications from the disease. University administrators and health officials are urging students to get the new vaccine — even though no new cases have been reported as of December 2013 — because the disease can surface for months at a time.

Senior Associate Dean of Students Debbie Fleming said that although students may not view the vaccine with the same sense of urgency as in November, the severity of the disease makes it necessary that students take every precaution.

“We could see more cases of meningitis,” Fleming said. “Sometimes, there are months in between case, so this is really an opportunity for students to come get a vaccine that they would have no access to otherwise.”

Fleming also said the clinic currently has pretty small lines, so getting the vaccine should take no more than 25 minutes — a small amount of time which she said may grow as more students decide to get the shot.

“The more students here who take advantage of this, the safer our community will be,” Fleming said. “I would hate for us to get to next Thursday and have lines out the door and have to turn anybody away.”

Dr. Mary Ferris, executive director of UCSB Student Health Service, said the clinic prepared to vaccinate thousands of students each day, noting that vaccine manufacturer Novartis has offered UCSB as much vaccine as is needed. However, she said students are only coming out by the hundreds; nevertheless, she said she is happy with the turnout and is trying to communicate to students that it is most helpful for everyone to have the vaccine.

“It’s a public health effort: it’s for their own good, but it’s for everyone else’s good too,” Ferris said.

Ferris said that while some years bring terrible flu strains that are responded to with shots, she has never seen anything like this in her seven years at UCSB.

“It’s a serious disease outbreak, and we have this new vaccine that has never been available before,” Ferris said. “We’ve never had anything this serious, this drastic.”

Lucy Breakwell, an Epidemic Intelligence Service Officer at the Center for Disease Control who was on hand at the clinic on Tuesday, said administering vaccinations has gone smoothly considering the amount of coordination between public health officials and university staff.

“Within the clinic, it has been a fantastic vibe,” Breakwell said. “Everyone has had a great experience coming through; we’ve had really good, positive feedback from the students and from CDC’s perspective. We’ve been really impressed with the way UCSB’s staff has pulled this together.”

Although both the meningitis outbreak at Princeton and the one here at UCSB are both serogroup B, Breakwell made clear that they are from different strains. Furthermore, Breakwell said that even though officials do not exactly know how the disease was spread, it is likely that many people were infected without showing symptoms.

“To have four cases that means a whole load of people must’ve been carrying it asymptomatically before those four people showed invasive disease,” Breakwell said. “The real risk factor is living in dorm style housing. We see a 23 fold higher increase risk of students who live in residence halls.”

Breakwell added that even though no new cases have come up since last quarter, students should still get a vaccination to address the risk of unknowingly spreading the disease.

“I think you’ve got to remember that this is a really deadly disease, one in four people who catch it have risk of dying or come away with really serious consequences such as hearing loss, brain damage, amputations,” Breakwell said. “You had four cases in November, which is really unusual. The possibility of another case happening is still really relevant.”

Despite rumors of some students at Princeton feeling minor side effects after the second vaccination, Fleming said students have little to fear about receiving the vaccine.

“I think there’s a little bit of trepidation about people misunderstanding that this is somehow experimental, or not understanding that investigational just means that, right now, there is no approval in the United State,” Fleming said. “But it’s being used safely in all these other countries, and so there’s nothing experimental about this at all … it’s very safe, it’s very effective, and, other than a little bit of a sore arm, we haven’t seen any side effects at all.”

No new cases of meningitis have been reported recently, but Student Health Services still recommends receiving the vaccine.

No new cases of meningitis have been reported recently, but Student Health Services still recommends receiving the vaccine.

Photo courtesy of UCSB News and Media Relations

A version of this story appeared on page 3 of Wednesday, February 26, 2014’s print edition of the Daily Nexus.