Hundreds get vaccinated as meningitis scare roils UMass

  • Grace Buckner, a freshman from Dedham, talks Thursday about the two recent cases of meningitis on the University of Massachusetts Amherst campus. GAZETTE STAFF/SARAH CROSBY

  • Andrew Cathcart, a UMass Amherst senior from Bridgewater, talks Nov. 16, 2017 about the two recent cases of meningitis on campus. —GAZETTE STAFF/SARAH CROSBY

  • Olivia Ringham, a junior from Melrose, and Marc Maren, a junior from Andover, talk Thursday about the two recent cases of meningitis at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. GAZETTE STAFF/SARAH CROSBY

  • Billy Hohreiter, an intern with UMass Cru, a Christian registered student organization, talks Nov. 16, 2017 about the two recent cases of meningitis on campus. —GAZETTE STAFF/SARAH CROSBY

  • Sam Usifer, a UMass Amherst senior from Hartford, Conn., talks Nov. 16, 2017 about the two recent cases of meningitis on campus. —GAZETTE STAFF/SARAH CROSBY

For the Gazette
Friday, November 24, 2017

AMHERST –– Following announcements about a second case of bacterial meningitis contracted by a University of Massachusetts student, hundreds have flocked to University Health Services to receive vaccines.

Both illnesses, diagnosed on Oct. 24 and Nov. 12, respectively, have been identified as meningitis B. Serogroup B is not covered by the meningitis vaccine that the Massachusetts Department of Public Health requires for college students.

According to spokeswoman Mary Dettloff, around 300 students had been vaccinated by 2 p.m. Nov. 16, with University Health Services estimating a total of 600 students vaccinated by the end of the day.

Meningitis B is spread only through contact with an infected person’s saliva — sharing drinks, eating utensils, kissing — Dr. George Corey, executive director of University Health Services, explained at a Nov. 14 news conference. The university has treated those who were in close contact with the two infected students with a prophylactic antibiotic.

According to a GoFundMe page set up by the first student’s fraternity, the student infected on Oct. 24 is at risk of losing skin, toes or feet. More than 300 people have donated to the page, totaling more than $15,000 on Thursday night.

The two infected students are both in stable condition, the university has announced. Nonetheless, some students expressed concerns about the illness Thursday.

“I’m a little concerned. One of our family friends passed away in college from meningitis. People joke about it and don’t realize how serious it is,” UMass freshman Grace Buckner, of Dedham, said. “They passed away within 24 hours (of becoming ill).”

Others, like UMass juniors Marc Maren, of Andover, and Olivia Ringham, of Melrose, said they will feel safer once away from campus.

“I’m concerned as all heck. You can go to school here and get sick, and that’s fine, but now it’s like you can go to school here and die,” Maren said. “I have a meningitis vaccine –– the same way I don’t expect to get polio.”

“The two cases not being related is very scary,” Ringham said. “I’m trying to go home and not eat anywhere on campus.”

Dining halls safe

University Health Services sent an email to students on Thursday and stated that UMass dining halls are perfectly safe to eat in, and that saliva is the conduit through which meningitis B spreads, not food, air or sweat.

Dr. Corey previously said that the level of concern was raised because the infected students were not in contact with each other, and the only way for the two illnesses to be unrelated would be if the strains were different. School officials operated under the assumption that both were serogroup B from the start.

The university does not expect an outbreak, and some staff are skeptical of the notion that the illnesses spread, because no one else has gotten ill.

“Even though (both illnesses were caused by) a really rare strain, more people would’ve gotten sick between then and now,” said Billy Hohreiter, who works with the school’s Christian organization, Cru.

Raising awareness

It is uncommon for a university or state to require that students receive the serogroup B vaccine, according to registered nurse Patti Wukovits, who made it her life’s mission to raise awareness of the serogroup B vaccine after her 17-year-old daughter, Kimberly, died suddenly from meningitis B in 2012.

“She was perfectly healthy, went to school and came home one afternoon with body aches and a fever of 101. I at first thought she had the flu.

“I brought her into the emergency room the next morning,” Wukovits, of Massapequa Park, New York, said. “She started with a rash on her skin, and by the time I got there the rash had turned purple.

“When the doctor told me they suspected meningitis, I was shocked and said, ‘No, my daughter’s been vaccinated.’”

With The Kimberly Coffey Foundation, of which she is the founder, Wukovits is partnering with The Emily Stillman Foundation to launch the Meningitis B Action Project in December, an initiative targeting college campuses, students and parents of people in the 16-to-23 age group.

“In 2017 it’s so important for parents to understand that it takes two vaccines to protect their kids against meningococcal disease. Otherwise, they will be just as protected as Kimberly was, and that is just not good enough,” Wukovits said.

The vaccine for serogroup B was not available in the U.S. when Kimberly died, but became available for Princeton University students in 2013 because of an outbreak, and for the rest of the U.S. in 2014, Wukovits said.

“Here we are, four years later, and we have two students on the University of Massachusetts campus who have meningitis B,” Wukovits said. “Now that meningitis B is showing its ugly head on the campus, they’re reacting and vaccinating, but had they been vaccinated beforehand they most likely would have been protected.”