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Princeton To Use New Meningitis Vaccine To Stem Campus Outbreak


Princeton University announced today that it's taking an unusual step. It's offering students a vaccine that has not yet been formally approved in the United States. The reason, as NPR's Rob Stein reports, is the elite school is struggling to control an outbreak of bacterial meningitis.

ROB STEIN, BYLINE: Seven meningitis cases have been reported at Princeton since March. And Tom Clark of the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta is worried there could be more.

TOM CLARK: It's very serious. It can happen very quickly. The typical story is kids are healthy and well one day and very sick the next. You can die within 24 hours.

STEIN: The meningitis bacteria causes an inflammation of the protective fluid and lining around the brain and spinal cord.

CLARK: It causes a fever. You'll hear people complain about severe headache, neck stiffness because their brain and spinal cord protective layer is inflamed.

STEIN: Most people recover, especially if the infection is caught early so doctors can give them antibiotics quickly.

CLARK: But even with good treatment, you still find that 10 to 15 percent of cases die and then another 10 to 15 percent or so will have serious disability from it afterwards, so either limb amputations or deafness.

STEIN: Many young people get a vaccine that protects them against the most common types of bacterial meningitis but not the kind circulating at Princeton. So the CDC took the unusual step of getting the Food and Drug Administration to allow the use of another vaccine recently approved in Europe.

CLARK: The best way to stop a meningococcal disease outbreak is to vaccinate.

STEIN: In the meantime, the university has been warning students to protect themselves. The bacteria spreads through close contact with infected people by doing things like kissing or sharing drinks. Hannah Park's a 20-year junior from Nashville.

HANNAH PARK: Like, I try like really hard to just, like, wash my hands, like avoid, like, any instance where I would somehow share cups or, like, share food or just, like, somehow exchange saliva in any way with another person.

STEIN: But Park says some of her friends aren't worried. They don't know anyone who's gotten sick.

PARK: I'm definitely a little bit worried about. It seems pretty scary, like, to have to go to the hospital for a while. I have a few friends that are pretty worried about it. But then some others are just like, oh, it seems like pretty rare to get and it's like very, like, few cases have appeared thus far.

STEIN: But even though she's worried about getting it, Park says she's not sure she'd get vaccinated.

PARK: I personally don't think I would take it, just because, like, I'm not a big fan of vaccinations, also, like, vaccinations can also have the adverse effect of making someone think that, like, they'll be OK, but they're not 100 percent effective.

STEIN: Clark says he hopes most students won't feel that way. The vaccine appears to be very safe and very effective. Rob Stein, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Rob Stein is a correspondent and senior editor on NPR's science desk.

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