Should parents worry about meningitis outbreaks at colleges?

Should parents worry about meningitis outbreaks at universities? Should parents worry about meningitis outbreaks at universities? Photo Credit: iStock

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Q. The meningitis outbreaks at Princeton University and UC Santa Barbara are unsettling for parents of college kids. Is it rational to worry it will spread to other campuses?

A. The outbreaks both involve the "B" strain of the disease. However, each university's cases are a different B sub-strain, which means they are unconnected and the illness didn't spread from New Jersey to California, says Dr. Paul Lee, a pediatric infectious disease specialist at Winthrop University Hospital in Mineola.

"Don't panic at this point," he says. "It's very unlikely it will spread to other college campuses." He advised parents of Santa Barbara students home for break to watch for flulike symptoms that may be accompanied by severe muscle pain.

Why the illness has passed to eight Princeton students and recently to four Santa Barbara students -- "That would be the million-dollar question," Lee says. While everyone has recovered at Princeton, one California student had to have his feet amputated.

Students must get a meningitis vaccine before college, because the disease spreads when many people live in proximity, such as in a dormitory. But the vaccine approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration covers only four of the five strains -- A, C, W135 and Y. The FDA hasn't yet approved a vaccine against B.

However, a vaccine against B was approved this year by European, Canadian and Australian regulatory agencies, and the FDA has allowed the two-dose vaccine to be used at Princeton.

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