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Longevity

Meningitis death tied to Princeton outbreak strain

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People walk around the Princeton University campus in New Jersey.REUTERS/Eduardo Munoz

A Philadelphia college student died of the same type of meningitis that caused an outbreak at Princeton University in New Jersey, suggesting the strain might still exist on the Ivy League campus despite a massive vaccination effort, federal health officials said Tuesday.

Stephanie Ross, a Drexel University sophomore from Pittsburgh, had been in close contact with Princeton students about a week before getting sick, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. She died March 10.

More than 5,000 members of the Princeton community, mostly undergraduate students, received inoculations for the meningitis B strain, but vaccinated individuals can still carry the bacteria in their throats and transmit it to others, the CDC said in a statement. The agency urged vigilance in preventing new cases.

"Although transmission is from person-to-person, this organism is not highly contagious and requires sharing respiratory and oral secretions to spread," the statement said.

The CDC said there is no outbreak at Drexel, which is about 40 miles from Princeton.

Meningitis causes swelling of the membranes covering the brain and spinal cord and is fairly rare in the U.S. But the illness develops quickly and, left untreated, can be fatal within a couple of days. Symptoms include a stiff neck, nausea, vomiting, light sensitivity and confusion.

Drexel officials said they have provided preventive antibiotics to everyone who came into close contact with Ross, a mechanical engineering major who was found unresponsive at her sorority house.

The Princeton outbreak began in March 2013 and sickened seven students and a campus visitor. All have recovered.

The most recent case was identified on Nov. 21. The university offered the B strain vaccine to eligible members of the campus community a couple of weeks later, and about 5,300 students and staff got the first of two shots. The second dose was administered last month.

A statement from Princeton released Tuesday urged people not share drinking glasses, eating utensils, smoking materials and other items. New Jersey health officials have said there is no need to cancel any school events or activities.

The vaccine, Bexsero, made by Switzerland-based Novartis, is approved for use in Europe, Australia and Canada but not yet for general use in the United States. The CDC recommended the unusual step of allowing Princeton to offer it, a move approved by the Food and Drug Administration.

Federal officials also permitted the University of California in Santa Barbara to hold a vaccination clinic with Bexsero in February.

Four students at UC Santa Barbara fell ill in November with a form of bacterial meningitis similar to the Princeton cases. Three recovered and the fourth had both feet amputated.