Antidote: Novartis strikes a blow against bacterial meningitis

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Marc Siegel, MD
Marc Siegel, MD

For the first time, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, an outbreak of a strain of bacterial meningitis (meningococcus strain B) that is rare to the US has occurred on a college campus, at Princeton University. Also for the first time, there is an effective and safe vaccine available to prevent it.

Bacterial meningitis is on the decline in the U.S., thanks to vaccination, with less than 3,000 cases per year. But strain B has no approved vaccine to cover it. Last year, according to CDC, there were 160 cases of this strain.

The outbreak at Princeton began last March, with seven people infected so far. The treatment is IV antibiotics. Symptoms include headache, stiff neck, high fever, malaise, rash and sensitivity to light. Usually, more than 10% of cases are deadly.

CDC urged the FDA to give provisional approval for the new Novartis vaccine, Bexsero, which has been found to be safe and effective and is currently available in Europe and Australia. Approval was given, and school officials have now been offering it to the students.

Dr. William Schaffner, former president of the Infectious Disease Society of America, told me that this is a very effective vaccine, with success rates of over 80%, sufficient to stop the outbreak. He said he expects Princeton students to “line up and get this vaccine.”

Though this outbreak was isolated to Princeton, serotype B is a growing problem and schools around the country need to be aware of it. Sharing cups, utensils and marijuana, common practices at college, can help spread the disease.

The new Novartis vaccine is a great public health tool and it is likely to be approved for widespread use here in the near future. Novartis deserves kudos for developing it, especially as vaccine development and sterilization are expensive propositions. The news media is not likely to give Novartis a pat on the back in this situation, though I certainly will.

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