6th case confirmed: 'We need parents to help us get the word out to students'

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PORTLAND, Ore. - State health officials appealed to the parents of University of Oregon students to get their children vaccinated against meningitis B.

The bacterial infection has sickened 6 students since January, killing one of them.

Dozens more students - upwards of 100 - have been taken to the hospital and evaluated for the infection.

"We're hoping that parents may have more powers of persuasion over their students in order to get those who haven't taken advantage of vaccines to go and get the vaccines," said Dr. Paul Cieslak, medical director for the Public Health Division of the Oregon Health Authority.

"The organism has basically diffused throughout the university campus," he said. "There is going to be a prolonged risk that will last not for a couple of weeks but for months.

"For the vast majority of students, the real message is get vaccinated," Cieslak said. "We're not going to solve this problem by giving antibiotics to a few close contacts."

Not everyone exposed to the bacteria that causes meingococcal disease falls ill.

The bacteria is harder to transmit than the flu or the common cold. But college students are at a higher risk due to living conditions.

And while more 9,000 students have received the first dose of a new vaccine against meningitis, health officials want thousands more to be vaccinated to halt the outbreak.

For perspective, Cieslak said there were only 4 cases of this strain of meningitis in all of Oregon in 2014.

So far, there have been 6 cases, including one fatality, since January in the UO community.

"What is going on on the University of Oregon campus has been sort of extraordinary," Cieslak said. "We have had a large number of cases, six, in a relatively short period of time. That suggests that something unusual is going on."

Cieslak isn't prepared to recommend that college students on other campuses, or students matriculating in the fall, should get the vaccine.

And he said they don't yet know how long the immunity from the vaccinations will last. The two vaccines against the strain were approved last October and in January.

Meanwhile, Lane County Public Health is working with the University of Oregon on how to vaccinate more students and what should be done in the future.

"This is going to be a risk for some time going forward, and we can't predict who will be that will be affected," Dr. Patrick Luedtke with Lane County Public Health said. "The best way to get your immunity and get protection is this vaccine. That's the best bullet we have."

Luedtke said Lane County and the University of Oregon are looking at ways to get the vaccines to students instead of having students come get them for the vaccines.

Students who are out of the area for spring break can make arrangements to get the vaccine by calling the Albertsons and Safeway pharmacy service center at (503) 577-4252.

Luedtke said that, after starting with essentially no one vaccinated, the number of students who have received the vaccine is approaching 10,000.

"Impressive, but not where we want to be," he said.

The Oregon Health Authority estimates 85 to 90 percent of students who get the first dose in the vaccine will have antibody levels that will give them protection.

Health officials said the risk is primarily confined to students. There is little to no risk to the general public.

"We know that risk wanes quickly after you reach the early 20s, so I don't think there's any general risk to the community," Cieslak said. "We know the contact is the most intense between students on campus."

The bacteria doesn't make everyone who is exposed to it ill.

Symptoms can develop in a matter of days.

Fast action is critical.

"There's a fork in the road when you get this bacteria where things can go bad really fast," Luedtke said.

He praised the health care provider who saw the student with the 6th case and took action. The student is expected to make a full recovery.

"I called him and thanked him," Luedtke said. "He may have saved his life."

Press release from the Oregon Health Authority

State confirms sixth University of Oregon meningococcal disease case

It's critical that students get vaccinated over spring break, health officials say

Oregon Health Authority officials say a sixth confirmed meningococcal disease case in a University of Oregon student underscores the critical importance of getting vaccinated against the illness before or during spring break.

The target audience for this vaccination plea: Parents of UO students returning home or planning a trip abroad during the break that starts March 23.

"We need parents to help us get the word out to students about this dangerous, potentially deadly disease, and why it's crucial for students to get the meningitis B shot right now," said Paul Cieslak, M.D., medical director of infectious disease and immunization programs at the OHA Public Health Division. "No one should be complacent about this disease. University of Oregon undergraduates who have not been vaccinated are at risk of infection, serious illness and death."

The latest case is a 20-year-old male UO sophomore who lives off campus.

The five previous cases all have fallen ill since mid-January.

The fourth case, an 18-year-old female freshman at UO, died from the disease February 17.

Oregon Public Health is working closely with UO and Lane County Public Health to investigate the latest case, including tracking and contacting individuals who may have had close contact with the student.

They also are encouraging people who meet the following criteria to get vaccinated as soon as possible:

All UO undergraduate students at the Eugene campus or undergraduate students who attend classes at least weekly at the Eugene campus;

UO graduate students who live in campus residence halls (dormitories) or fraternity and sorority houses; and

UO students with high-risk medical conditions, including absent spleen or abnormal spleen function, such as that caused by sickle cell disease, or complement deficiency.

UO students can get vaccinated against meningococcal disease at the University Health Center as well as any Safeway, Albertsons or Walgreens pharmacy in Oregon.

Their insurance will be billed directly, and the vaccine will be provided at no cost to them.

So far, more than 9,000 UO students have received the meningitis B vaccine.

The goal is to vaccinate 22,000 undergraduate students.

Cieslak says he is pleading with UO parents to encourage students to get vaccinated when they return home for spring vacation, or in Eugene if they choose to stay in town during the break. They also should make sure students who are planning trips abroad get vaccinated before they leave.

"This meningococcal outbreak is not over. We won't be at all surprised if we see more cases," Cieslak said. "That's why undergrads and those with high-risk medical conditions should get vaccinated right away. It's the best way to reduce your risk of being infected."

Students can further reduce the spread of the disease by completing the series of doses for the meningitis vaccine, which is offered in two- and three-dose courses.

They also can help prevent its spread by covering their cough and washing their hands frequently, and avoiding sharing items such as cups, eating utensils and smoking devices.

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