Vaccine Question: Exercise Caution or Worth the Price?

by Melissa Brunner

<i>Update: Late Monday, Princeton received an emergency waiver to offer a meningitis vaccine not currently approved in the U.S., pending final approval from the CDC.</i>

A story unfolding on the Princeton University campus might give all parents of college students pause - and could have you re-examining how you feel about the rigorous process for approving new medications and medical treatments in the U.S.

It is a story that definitely hits close to home for one person somewhat well known to Topekans. More from him in a bit. First, the background.

Princeton has had seven cases of meningitis confirmed since March. While there is a meningitis vaccine that is now required for most college students, these cases are a rarer type B strain, against which the vaccine does not protect.

However, that doesn't mean such a vaccine does not exist. In January 2013, the European Commission approved the Bexserso vaccine for meningitis B. It is the product of more than 20 years of research, tested in clinical trials involving more than 8,000 people and thought to offer 73 percent protection. It also is approved for use in Australia. In light of the Princeton outbreak, the Centers for Disease Control has asked the FDA for an investigational new drug application in order to import the vaccine for use in this country. Princeton officials were to decide as soon as today whether to then offer the vaccine to students. In comments to national media outlets, the CDC has said it does consider the vaccine safe.

The concern with type B meningitis is how quickly it moves and how devastating it can be. The CDC says 10 to 12 percent of those who get meningitis die from it. Of those who recover, 20 percent will have severe side effects, including limb amputations, deafness and brain damage.

So why not give the vaccine? As with anything, there are pros and cons. Even though it is approved in Europe, the group Meningitis Wise says the Joint Committee for Vaccinations and Immunizations that advises the UK government has not recommended introducing the vaccine to the UK's routine immunization schedule. Among their concerns is cost. They then weigh the cost against the potential benefit. The CDC told CBS News that the largest B strain outbreak on a college campus occurred from 2008 to 2010 and affected 13 people. Do you go to the expense of vaccinating an entire population when only 13 could potentially be affected over a long period of time?

If you are one of those 13, the answer is that it is absolutely worth it. Andy Marso, who many people know as a reporter with the Topeka Capital-Journal, shared his battle with a B strain of meningitis with us on 13 News last year and has detailed it in a recently published book. He became ill while a student at KU and recalls going from feeling ill to friends literally carrying him to the doctor's office in a matter of hours. He spent 119 days at KU Med, undergoing 16 surgeries to reshape his hands and feet, portions of which had to be amputated. His case is, in part, what prompted the Board of Regents to now require the meningitis vaccine for incoming students.

Andy is grateful for that change, since other meningitis strains can have the same impact on people. And if something can protect against the B strain, too, he says, the FDA should not delay in making it available - not just for Princeton, but for the thousands of students on other campuses who also are at higher risk for meningitis.

"I understand the FDA has protocols to follow, but every day we go without a vaccine that prevents meningitis B is costing lives and limbs," Andy wrote to me in an email today when I asked him about the Princeton situation. "I have the scars and the stumps to prove it, and I am one of the lucky ones.

"It's time to end this disease," he continued. "The technology is catching up to it. Now all we need is the will."

 

Andy Marso's book, Worth the Pain, is available on Amazon.com.

 

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