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Two cases of meningitis B at UMass labeled an outbreak; university to hold mass-vaccination clinics

  • Dr. George Corey, executive director of University Health Services, talks about the meningitis B outbreak at UMass on Tuesday, Nov. 28, 2017, in the UMass Student Union ballroom. Seated next to him are UMass spokesman Ed Blaguszewski and, at far right, UMass Public Health Nurse Ann Becker.  David McLellan



For the Bulletin
Tuesday, December 05, 2017

AMHERST — State and University of Massachusetts health services have determined that two recent cases of meningococcal disease on campus are an outbreak and are recommending approximately 20,000 undergraduate students receive vaccinations.

The university is holding four mass vaccination clinics to immunize students against meningitis B, beginning Thursday, Nov. 30, through Tuesday, Dec. 5.

Extensive testing by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has determined that the two ill students contracted meningitis B from a “single strain of genetically identical organisms,” prompting the characterization of the situation as an outbreak, according to a UMass statement on Tuesday.

“How do you know you’re in an outbreak? It is based on this: Do we with all our scientific methods, epidemiology, laboratory science, expect that there is a heightened risk on campus? That means there’s an outbreak,” Dr. George Corey, executive director of University Health Services, said at the Student Union, where he briefed news reporters on the situation.

About 1,500 students already received the vaccine in the wake of the two meningitis cases, Corey said.

Extra caution

Meningitis B is not highly contagious like influenza or a common cold, although its early symptoms may be similar (followed by a neck pain, a high fever and rash). It is spread through saliva.

According to UMass Public Health Nurse Ann Becker, many college-age students –– sometimes 20 percent of them –– can carry the bacteria that may cause meningitis B, Neisseria meningitidis, in their throat or nose without getting sick. A weakened immune system can lead from carrying the bacteria to contracting the illness.

Still, the university is using extra caution in its response to the two cases for two reasons: First, the illness can be fatal, even only days after feeling healthy. Second, the two infected students contracted the disease from the same strain, but did not know each other and were unconnected. This suggests that the number of students carrying the bacteria may have increased, without them becoming ill.

“If the same strain of meningococcus is capable of infecting two people, then there could be a third or a fourth case,” Corey said.

University officials, working with the Massachusetts Department of Health, have identified close contacts of the infected students and treated them with a prophylactic antibiotic. The university has recommended that students wash their hands frequently, and avoid kissing, sharing drinks, food or anything that goes in the mouth.

“This is the first time in Massachusetts that a university will have this kind of vaccination campaign,” said Dr. Susan Lett, medical director of the DPH’s immunization program.

Lett has been working with UMass since the first student became ill on Oct. 24. According to Lett, there are about 10 cases of invasive meningococcal disease, including meningitis B, in Massachusetts each year.

“What we want to do when we have two cases of a closely related strain, we want to vaccinate people in case there has been an increase in the number of carriers of that strain. By reducing carriage you can reduce the spread,” Lett said.

Corey explained that while the risk for any individual student of contracting meningitis B is low, the university has been operating under the assumption that more students could become ill since the first case in October.

All students already are required to be vaccinated against the meningitis A, C, W and Y serotypes. Serotype B is not covered by that vaccine. Two shots will be required for the vaccine Bexsero, spaced a month apart, to build up an immunity to serotype B. According to Lett, it takes about two weeks after the second dose of the vaccine for a person to become immune.

“We are not in the clear,” Corey said. “They (cases of meningitis B) can occur a month apart, two months apart.”

The university has stated that the first student and the second student, who became ill on Nov. 12, are both in stable condition. The second student was released from the hospital a few days ago and is doing well, according to UMass spokeswoman Mary Dettloff.

The clinics will be held in the Cape Cod Lounge at the Student Union on Thursday, Friday, Monday and Tuesday. On Thursday, first-year students will be vaccinated; on Friday, sophomore students; on Monday, junior students; and on Tuesday, seniors.

Because the situation is considered an outbreak, the university says students should not have a problem getting insurance to cover vaccine costs, but those with private insurance providers should still contact them to verify coverage.

Students should also download and fill out a “Referral Request form” and bring it to the clinic so that they can be vaccinated. Students with the university-sponsored health insurance, Consolidated Health Plan, will receive the vaccine for free with no referral or pre-authorization required.

“There is no out-of-pocket fee,” Becker said. “No one will be denied the vaccine.”