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Meningococcal Disease Outbreak Confirmed at UCSB

Three students are recovering from the disease, and officials are taking preventive measures to protect others considered 'close contacts'

Santa Barbara County public health officials announced Thursday that a third case of meningococcal disease has been confirmed at UC Santa Barbara — thus meeting the definition of an outbreak.

The health department announced earlier this week that two students were receiving treatment for the disease, a bacterial infection that causes bloodstream infections and meningitis.

The third case to develop in the span of one week was confirmed Thursday morning at a press conference held in downtown Santa Barbara where public health, UCSB and other local health providers updated the media.

The first case is a male student who became ill on Nov. 11, and the second is also a male student who became ill on Nov. 13. The third and most recent case is a female student who became ill on Monday, according to the Public Health Department. Two of those students live on campus.

UCSB officials say that the second student to be diagnosed has recovered and is attending classes again, while the third student has almost fully recovered.

The Public Health Department is conducting blood tests on other potential cases and will provide updated case counts as they are confirmed, according to Dr. Charity Thoman, deputy health officer for public health.

University and public health officials are investigating the cases and have taken preventive measures, including prescribing antibiotics, for more than 300 students considered "close contacts" with the ill students.

How the students may have contracted the disease is unknown, but Thoman said "there was some contact between cases."

College-age people, especially first-year students living in residence halls, are at increased risk of meningococcal disease.

Those considered close contacts include people exposed to the ill person’s respiratory and throat secretions through living in close quarters, kissing or other prolonged close contact.

There is no vaccine for the type of strain found in the students, as the U.S. Food and Drug Administration has not approved a vaccine in the country. 

The vaccinations most students receive before attending college immunizes them against four other types of meningococcal disease, but not the type seen at UCSB in the last week, Thoman said.

"Students who received this vaccine will not be protected," Thoman said, adding that students should still be vaccinated against the other four strains.

Early treatment is critical because the disease can quickly become life-threatening.  

A rash, which can be purple, appearing on the body accompanied by fever can be a signal that a person has meningococcal disease, and other symptoms include severe headache, body aches, joint pain, nausea, vomiting, increased sensitivity to light and confusion and can be mistaken for flu early in the course of the illness.

Anyone with the signs or symptoms of meningococcal disease should seek medical care immediately.

Dr. Mary Ferris, executive director of student health at UCSB, said the university and its health center have been on "high alert" since finding out about the cases.

Though the disease is the same strain as that identified in seven cases at Princeton University, Thoman said officials haven't identified any connection between the universities.

One of the main differences between the two outbreaks is that UCSB has seen three cases emerge over a one-week period, while Princeton has seen seven cases since March, said Dr. David Fisk, who was also at Thursday's news conference.

Fisk is an infectious disease specialist with Sansum Clinic as well as medical director of Infection Prevention and Control at Cottage Health System.

That rapid spread is a cause for concern for Fisk and other health-care providers who are working to prevent the more cases from developing.

Though this strain of the disease is not uncommon, it is more unusual to see it pop up on college campuses, Fisk said.

Dr. Thomas Clark, acting chief of the meningitis and vaccine preventable disease branch, for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, was also part of the meeting though was on conference call.

Clark said the FDA has not approved a vaccine for the strain found at UCSB for use in the United States, and that two companies produce it, but that there "hasn't been a decision on either."

The CDC recommends two doses of meningococcal conjugate vaccine for all adolescents ages 11 to 12 and age 16, and first-year students living in residence halls are recommended to receive at least one dose of vaccine prior to college entry.

Covering coughs, keeping hands clean and being up to date with recommended vaccines, especially flu vaccine, are actions everyone can take to stay healthy, protect themselves from illness, and prevent the spread of infections to others.

Noozhawk staff writer Lara Cooper can be reached at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address). Follow Noozhawk on Twitter: @noozhawk, @NoozhawkNews and @NoozhawkBiz. Connect with Noozhawk on Facebook.

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