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Meningitis outbreak: California students may get vaccine Princeton got

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By Ben Brumfield and Elizabeth Landau

A potentially deadly disease that can maim the brain has befallen two prestigious American institutions that educate the mind.

With permission, Princeton University has already been distributing a drug not approved in the United States to fight a campus outbreak of meningitis. Now California health officials are considering following suit, they announced late Thursday.

If they approve, about 700 students at the University of California, Santa Barbara, will be offered a shot in the arm, after they came into close contact with four classmates who came down with meningococcal disease.

That's the bacterial ailment that can lead to meningitis, an infection of the protective tissue called the meninges that surrounds the brain and spinal cord.

All four of the students infected at UCSB got meningitis. Two have recovered, and another is expected to soon, but the fourth has suffered serious complications.

Other germs like fungus and viruses can also lead to meningitis, but they are milder or harder to catch. The bacterial type is contagious and very dangerous.

"It's the bacterial meningitis branch that packs the most powerful punch. Its bacterial swarm can cause brain damage, hearing loss, or learning disabilities," the Centers for Disease Control say in an online flier.

The strain of bacteria infecting the students and Princeton and UCSB is type B. There is no FDA approved vaccine to fight it, so one is having to be imported.

It starts with a 'cold'

Meningococcal disease doesn't have to turn into meningitis. It starts out like a bad chest cold, but it can spread via the phlegm to the meninges.

Patients with meningitis can fully recover, but UCSB student Aaron Loy has not been so fortunate, according to a website dedicated to his recovery.

If things go bad, stiff neck, headaches, fever, delirium and vomiting can crescendo in permanent neurological damage. The disease can also get into the blood stream and attack extremities.

Doctors may have to amputate a limb while fighting it, the CDC said.

They had to remove two of Loy's, his lower legs. He is an avid soccer player. The charity HelpHOPELive is taking donations to help him meet medical expenses, including prosthetic legs and physical therapy.

Bacterial meningitis can also kill.

Target: young, healthy groups

The viral and fungal types attack mostly infants and the elderly, but the bacteria like young, healthy adults, who live in close quarters. Places, where they sneeze and cough on each other, forget to wash their belongings and hands, or share a glass or a kiss, the CDC said.

Students in dorm rooms make the perfect target.

UCSB is sending a letter to its fraternities and sororities, most of which are based off campus, asking them to refrain from large social gatherings where cups might be exchanged, UCSB spokesman George Foulsham said.

"We're almost certain that they'll go along with that as we head into the holiday period here," he said.

Luckily, bacterial meningitis is not commonplace.

There were only 480 cases of it last year in the United States. And the chances of dying go down to 15%, if someone who is infected takes vaccines and antibiotics, the CDC said.

The vaccine

The CDC recommends that college freshmen living in dorms receive a meningitis vaccine, but the vaccine approved for use in the United States does not protect against the kind caused by type B bacteria.

Swiss pharmaceutical company Novartis makes an inoculation called Bexsero, which is approved in Europe and Australia but has not yet passed FDA approval.

The students at both universities are swallowing the antibiotics, but those at Princeton are already getting the vaccine. The university will offer the shot to more than 5,500 students in dorms and similar living quarters.

The CDC has given its blessing. Authorities in California are still deciding whether or not to let UCSB join them.

Health officials are currently not making any additional exceptions for the use of the Swiss vaccine, pending FDA approval.

Anything that weakens resistance to disease, such as age, diabetes, an AIDS infection or drugs that suppress the immune system make people more susceptible to meningococcal disease, the Mayo Clinic said.

That includes excessive use of alcohol -- another reason to put off campus bashes, until the bacterial scourge is banned.

CNN's Chuck Johnston contributed to this report

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