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4th meningitis case confirmed at Calif. university

Parties and other social events may be curtailed at the University of California, Santa Barbara after a fourth case of meningitis was confirmed in a potentially deadly outbreak that has left one student permanently disabled.

Santa Barbara County public health officials on Monday urged the school to suspend some campus events, including Greek fraternity and sorority parties, after an 18-year-old male student was diagnosed as the fourth case in a month.

Three of the cases at UCSB have been caused by the B strain of meningitis bacteria, which is not covered by a U.S. vaccine recommended for college students, officials said in a release. Officials are still waiting to confirm the strain in the latest case.

The infection kills at least 1 in 10 people who contract it and leaves about 20 percent of those who survive with permanent problems, including limb loss and mental retardation, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Health officials declined to say how the student in the UCSB outbreak had been disabled. 

An outbreak of meningitis B across the country at Princeton University in New Jersey has been caused by the same strain, but with a different genetic fingerprint than the UCSB cases, CDC officials said.

Santa Barbara health officials also warned that certain students who may have been exposed to infection will be directed to receive antibiotics to prevent illness no later than Tuesday — and to take the medication onsite. More than 500 students considered to be close contacts of those who are ill have been given the drugs already, but preventive antibiotics may protect only for about one day and students who are exposed again can get sick, officials noted. 

They're urging students to seek medical care at the first sign of symptoms, which can include fever, stiff neck and headache. “In a setting of an ongoing outbreak of a serious disease, we believe that these actions are reasonable,” health officials said in a statement. 

University officials said they weren't "suspending" social gatherings, but were asking students to
refrain from participating in "social events that involve close personal contact, alcohol and/or 
smoking and where eating utensils and cups/glasses may be shared." 

"All the existing cases appear to have had close personal contact," they added in an email to the
campus community.

At Princeton, where eight students associated with the New Jersey school have been sickened since March, health officials are planning to start a mass vaccination on Monday with an imported vaccine that covers meningitis B. The vaccine, called Bexsero, is approved in Europe and Australia, but not in America.

So far, there are no plans to request a similar intervention in California, a CDC spokesman said, noting that that could change.

“We are working in close collaboration with state and local health officials to monitor the outbreak at UCSB,” said Jason McDonald. “And we are prepared to work with partners to make the serogroup B meningococcal vaccine available if the circumstances of this outbreak warrant its use.”

Each outbreak requires individual consideration about the number of cases, the timing and the characteristics of the bacteria that cause the outbreak, he added.

Bacterial meningitis is a dangerous infection of the protective membranes that cover the brain and the spinal cord, known as the meninges. It is spread through respiratory droplets or secretions exchanged through close contact such as coughing or kissing. 

Teens and young adults are especially vulnerable to the disease because they spend a lot of time together in close quarters such as dorms, coffee shops and bars, with plenty of potential to swap germs. At any one time, 5 percent to 10 percent of the population may carry the bacteria in their throats, but only a small proportion develops infections. Exposure to smoke and getting a respiratory illness, like a cold, can increase the chance of infection, CDC says. 

Cases have dropped sharply in the U.S. in recent years, but between 800 and 1,200 are typically reported annually. The worry is that between 10 percent and 12 percent of those who get the fast-moving infection die, and about 20 percent of those who recover can wind up with severe side effects including deafness, mental retardation and limb amputations, according to the CDC.

Meningitis vaccines licensed in the U.S. cover only four strains that cause illness: A, C, Y and W-135. Scientists have worked for decades to create a vaccine to prevent infection with the meningitis B strain.

Meanwhile, a case of meningitis that sickened an employee at another New Jersey college, Monmouth University, was determined to be caused by the C strain of meningitis. That person remains hospitalized, but is recovering, a spokeswoman said. 

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