Philadelphia meningitis death tied to Princeton outbreak

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Thursday, March 20, 2014 - 10:00am

A Philadelphia college student died from the same strain of meningitis seen in an outbreak at Princeton University, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said Tuesday.

The Drexel University student died March 10 from meningitis B, or "serogroup B meningococcal disease," the CDC said in a statement.

Lab analysis showed the disease matched the strain seen at Princeton through "genetic fingerprinting," health officials said.

"The public health investigation of the Drexel University student revealed that the student had been in close contact with students from Princeton University about a week before becoming ill," the CDC said.

The death raises concern the outbreak strain may still be present in the Princeton community, health officials said.

Starting in December, a "high percentage" of Princeton undergraduates and eligible graduate students received an unlicensed meningitis vaccination called Bexsero.

While the vaccine is approved for use in Europe, Canada and Australia, it is not yet approved for use in the United States. The CDC and the Food and Drug Administration granted approval for the vaccine to be distributed at Princeton.

Last month, Bexsero was also distributed to students at the University of California, Santa Barbara, which had an outbreak involving four cases of of meningococcal disease unrelated to the Princeton outbreak. Meningococcal disease can cause meningitis or blood infections.

Nine cases of group B meningitis have been associated with the Princeton outbreak, Princeton University said on its web site Tuesday. Eight cases were previously reported; the new number includes the Drexel case, said Princeton spokesman Martin Mbugua.

The CDC noted no new cases have been seen at Princeton since the vaccinations began on December 9.

"Available data show most adolescents that get two doses of this vaccine are protected from getting meningococcal disease," the CDC said. "However, vaccinated individuals may still be able to carry the bacteria in their throats, which could infect others through close contact."

No related cases have been reported at Drexel, the CDC said. Health officials were investigating whom the student may have been in contact with and providing antibiotics.

A statement on the Princeton website Tuesday urged members of the university community to "continue to be vigilant in following good health practices to prevent the spread of this illness."

Meningitis is caused by inflammation of the membranes that cover the brain and the spinal cord, known as the meninges. Infection of the fluid surrounding the brain and spinal cord usually causes this inflammation, according to the CDC.

College students are especially vulnerable, and dorms are the perfect breeding grounds for an outbreak, health officials say.

Meningitis B spreads through coughing, sneezing, and kissing. It can also spread when people forget to wash their hands or clothes, or among people who drink out of the same cup.

Meningitis B is tricky, since students who catch it may first think they have the flu. It starts with flulike symptoms: fever, headache, stiff necks, vomiting and delirium. If the bacteria spread to the meninges, patients can suffer hearing loss, permanent neurological damage and even death.

In 2012, there were 480 cases of bacterial meningitis in the United States, according to the CDC. Of those, 160 were group B.

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