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MIT Medical responds to meningococcal meningitis outbreak at Princeton University

In the last week, news organizations have reported on an outbreak of invasive meningococcal disease at Princeton University and on the school’s decision to inoculate students with a vaccine that is available in Europe but has not yet received approval for use in the U.S.

The Princeton outbreak began in March 2013. On Nov. 14, the New Jersey Department of Health announced the sixth and seventh cases, indicating an ongoing epidemic. Of the seven reported cases of invasive meningococcal disease, six individuals developed meningitis. None of the cases has been fatal.

“There have been no cases of invasive meningococcal serotype B at MIT or at other schools, including other schools in New Jersey,” notes MIT Medical’s associate medical director, Howard Heller, an infectious disease specialist. “However, we have continued to monitor and address possible risks to our students, particularly those who might come in contact with Princeton students at athletic events.”

The meningococcus strain in the Princeton outbreak is serotype B, which is not one of the four serotypes (A, C, W135, and Y) included in the meningococcal vaccine routinely given to adolescents and college freshmen in the U.S. However, a vaccine for serotype B is available in Europe, and with help from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), Princeton health officials are obtaining a stock of the European vaccine to administer to their students.

When the Princeton outbreak was first reported on May 13, Heller says, MIT Medical clinicians immediately discussed the situation with MIT’s athletic trainers. Members of MIT’s varsity track and field team who had attended a weekend meet at Princeton less than a month earlier were contacted; none had become ill. More recently, MIT’s varsity crew team participated in a competition at Princeton on Oct. 27. “We are now beyond the incubation period for meningococcal illnesses,” Heller reports, “and none of those students have become sick.”

MIT’s director of student health, Shawn Ferullo, recently met with Tom Cronin, MIT’s head athletic trainer, to make recommendations for ongoing precautions. “At this time, we do not believe there is any increased risk to the MIT community,” Heller says. “We continually emphasize standard hygiene practices to minimize the risk of contagious diseases within our community, and we are not making any additional, special recommendations. Whether on campus or away, we encourage people to wash their hands frequently and avoid sharing food and drinks with others.”

MIT athletes are not scheduled to participate in athletic events at Princeton until late April, at which point Heller expects the current epidemic to be contained. But until then, he says, “We will be continuously monitoring the situation, reassessing risk to MIT students, and taking any necessary additional steps.”

Information about invasive meningococcal disease, including the Princeton outbreak, can be found on the CDC website.

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