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CDC poised to recommend meningitis vaccine at UCSB, but no shots yet

Federal health officials said Friday they’re taking steps to authorize an imported vaccine to halt a bacterial meningitis outbreak at the University of California, Santa Barbara — but they emphasized that no decision to offer the shots has been made.

“We certainly hope that this outbreak is over, but are working under the assumption that more cases may occur,” officials with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said in a statement.

More than 5,200 students at Princeton University in New Jersey received the emergency vaccine this week after an outbreak of a slightly different strain of meningitis B there sickened eight students associated with the school since March.

The government considered authorizing the vaccine for UCSB after a flood of complaints from parents of students concerned about the outbreak of meningitis B that has sickened four students, including a freshman whose feet had to be amputated because of complications. The rare-but-dangerous infection kills 1 in 10 people who get it and leaves 20 percent of those who survive with serious disabilities. 

The parents want health officials and the university to import Bexsero, a vaccine that protects against the B strain of meningitis, which is not covered by the shots recommended for U.S. college students. The vaccine has been approved in Europe, Australia and Canada, but not in the U.S.

But CDC officials have said there are significant differences between the outbreaks at the two schools and that they weren’t certain that it was necessary to offer the vaccine at UCSB, which has more than 21,000 students.

Many outbreaks of meningitis B stop at four or fewer cases over a few weeks. The UCSB outbreak infected the four students within three weeks last month.

Still, the CDC has been studying issues including who would be advised to get the vaccine, how it would be offered and who would pay for it. CDC staff have been on campus to assess the living arrangements and “patterns of interactions among students,” the statement said.

“Since the process to gain access to an unlicensed vaccine can take several weeks, it is critical that other steps are taken to help protect students right now,” officials added.

Dr. Tom Clark, a CDC meningitis expert, has said that it’s clear that Bexsero would protect against the B strain of meningitis at UCSB.

But the agency has not submitted an investigational new drug application, or IND, to the Food and Drug Administration, a move necessary to allow vaccination to move forward, a spokesman said. On Friday, a spokesman for the California Department of Public Health said the agency had asked "early on" in the outbreak for CDC to initiate the IND process. The first case at UCSB occurred Nov. 11. 

That angers parents such as Dr. Cristina Lete, 46, a Massachusetts obstetrician who wants her 18-year-old son, Jacob, to get the meningitis B shot.

“It’s a euphemism, I think, for waiting for more kids to get sick,” she said.

Her comments were echoed by Gavin Brooks, 51, of Laguna Beach, Calif., whose 20-year-old daughter is a UCSB student.

“They’re saying, in order for us to act, we need to have more sick people,” she said. “You’re waiting for another devastated family. That’s what you’re waiting for.”

UCSB officials said they’ve been working closely with the CDC and state and local health officials and they’re ready to move forward.

“The university is actively taking all of the necessary steps to ensure access to the unlicensed vaccine if it is recommended by health and medical experts," George Foulsham, university spokesman, said in a statement.

Foulsham would not specifically say whether that means the school would pay for the vaccine and provide a clinic to administer it, as Princeton officials did. 

Bacterial meningitis is a dangerous infection of the protective membranes that cover the brain and spinal cord. It is carried on respiratory droplets or secretions spread through close contact such as coughing or kissing. Teens and young adults ages 16 to 23 are most vulnerable to infection, Clark said. 

It's a completely separate infection from other types of meningitis caused by viruses or fungi.

The meningitis outbreaks have put schools in California and elsewhere on alert for the infections. At the Unversity of California, Riverside, an unidentified faculty member was hospitalized with bacterial meningitis last weekend, prompting a warning to close contacts of the person and other steps to prevent spread, school officials said. County health officials have not yet identified which strain of bacteria sickened the person. 

At Cal Poly, the California Polytechnic State University in San Luis Obispo, a student was diagnosed this week with viral meningitis, which is typically less serious than the bacterial infections. 

Bacterial meningitis cases have dropped sharply in the U.S. in recent years, with only about 500 reported last year, CDC officials said.

JoNel Aleccia is a senior health reporter with NBC News. Reach her on Twitter at @JoNel_Aleccia or send her an email.