In December 2013, four students at UC Santa Barbara contracted a type of bacterial meningitis. The disease is rare but can have terrible consequences when it strikes: One student's illness was so advanced that doctors had to amputate his feet.
At the time, there were no licensed vaccines against the serogroup B strain of meningococcal bacteria in the country. So in the midst of the outbreak, UCSB students received a vaccine that had been approved in other countries, but not the United States.
Since then, the Food and Drug Administration has licensed two vaccines that prevent serogroup B meningococcal disease. On Wednesday, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices will consider recommending the serogroup B vaccine for adolescents.
The CDC already recommends that all children get vaccinated against four other kinds of meningococcal bacteria at age 11 or 12, with a booster shot at age 16. But that list doesn't include the serogroup B strain, which causes about one out of every three cases of meningococcal disease in the country, according to the CDC.
If the vaccine were added to the CDC’s list of recommended childhood immunizations, it would be fully covered as a preventive service under the Affordable Care Act.
The disease does not strike often. In 2013, of 560 cases of meningococcal disease nationwide, an estimated 150 to 200 were caused by the serogroup B strain, according to the CDC.
But vaccination expert Dr. Paul Offit believes immunization against serogroup B would be worthwhile.
"You are immunizing a lot of people to prevent not a lot of cases," says Offit, director of the Vaccine Education Center at the Children's Hospital of Philadelphia. "That said, where do you draw the line?
"You could reasonably argue that if it's safe, effective and it can prevent one person from dying, then people should get it, because you don’t know who that one person is."
It's for that reason that Lynn Bozof, president of the National Meningitis Association, is advocating that the immunization committee vote to add the serogroup B vaccine to the CDC’s recommended vaccination schedule. Her son, Evan, was a 20-year-old student at Georgia Southwestern University when he contracted meningitis and died 17 years ago.
"No parent should lose a child to a vaccine preventable disease," Bozof says. "Until late last year, we didn't have the opportunity to protect our children from serogroup B and now we do."
Bacterial meningitis is spread through the exchange of respiratory and throat secretions, like saliva and mucus, according to the CDC. Symptoms include the sudden onset of fever, headache and stiff neck, and can include nausea, vomiting, increased sensitivity to light and altered mental status.
Like other infectious diseases, it spreads more quickly in places where large groups of people gather, such as colleges and military dormitories.