After a case of serogroup B meningococcal disease was confirmed on campus last Friday, members of the National Meningitis Association are urging Yalies to get vaccinated against the strain.
On Feb. 5, an undergraduate student was admitted to Yale-New Haven Hospital with suspected bacterial meningococcal disease. After a series of tests, physicians confirmed that the student had serogroup B meningococcal disease, one of the most common strains of meningitis among college-age students and a strain that is not covered by today’s required meningitis vaccines.
While people in close contact with the student have already been offered ciprofloxacin, an antibiotic that prevents meningitis, Director of Yale Health Paul Genecin announced that Bexsero, a vaccine for serogroup B meningitis, will be available to all members of the Yale community, beginning Tuesday, Feb. 17.
Public health authorities do not specifically recommend being vaccinated against type B meningococcal infection, but members of the NMA say it is better to be safe than sorry.
“As a mother, I’d say that if there’s no reason you can’t take the shot, why not?” NMA spokeswoman Jeri Acosta said, adding that students who have concerns about the vaccine should speak with their doctors.
Meningitis is an acute inflammation of the meninges, the protective membranes covering the brain and spinal cord, and is normally caused by a bacterial or viral infection of the surrounding fluid. While initial symptoms can mirror milder diseases such as the flu, meningitis — which first causes headaches, vomiting and neck stiffness — progresses rapidly, and can cause disability and death within hours of the patient becoming symptomatic.
Although the symptoms of the student currently recovering from meningitis were spotted early, and she was discharged from the hospital within two weeks of admission, spokespeople from the NMA are urging Yale students to think carefully about getting a meningitis vaccine against serogroup B.
Acosta lost her son Robert, a junior at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette, in 2006 to meningitis. At the time, similar to today’s case with serogroup B meningitis, the meningitis vaccination that is currently required of all students entering college was available, but the CDC did not explicitly recommend it.
Robert Acosta had serogroup C meningococcal disease in his bloodstream and began exhibiting flu-like symptoms including vomiting, chills and diarrhea, as well as severe leg and groin pain. Twenty-one hours and two emergency room visits later, he died.
According to his mother, it was particularly shocking that he died of a disease that could have been easily prevented by a vaccine. At the time of her son’s illness and death, Jeri Acosta did not know there was a vaccine that could have saved her son’s life because the CDC had not yet recommended the vaccine.
“I hadn’t heard of meningitis at all. I just knew it was a word,” she said.
Had Acosta’s son survived, he would have been severely disabled, she added. That is what happened to John Kach, who contracted meningitis as a freshman at Salve Regina University in Portland, Rhode Island. The vaccination to prevent the strain of meningitis he got was available but not yet recommended by the CDC.
Kach also exhibited flu-like symptoms but initially refused to go to the hospital when his girlfriend suggested it. When he woke up feeling extremely weak, he finally decided to go. His temperature peaked at 105 degrees and his white blood cell count — which indicates the presentation of infection in the body — reached 80,000, 10 times that of a healthy person. The physicians put him into an induced coma which lasted six weeks, during which he suffered septic shock and needed both of his legs amputated, as well as all of his fingers.
“Before I was put in the coma, I was given my last rites,” he said, explaining that it was assumed he would die of the disease.
Kach survived, and no other Salve Regina students got meningitis. But six students at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette during the outbreak that claimed Robert Acosta’s life did. Two died.
The CDC only recommends vaccinating against meningitis serogroups A,C, W and Y. However, two new vaccines are now available to protect young people between the ages of 10 and 25 from serogroup B meningitis.
Bexsero, the newly approved vaccine that Yale Health has ordered, requires two shots at least one month apart and will be free for students with Yale Health Hospitalization/Specialty coverage and employees insured by Yale Health. Students who are only on the basic coverage plan will need to pay $256 in total if both rounds of the vaccine are not covered by other private insurance.
At Princeton, the vaccinations were free after eight cases of type B meningitis were confirmed, and Providence College offered Trumenba — which was approved by the FDA before Bexsero — to 3,000 students for free after two students contracted type B meningitis.