Out of a total of 259 students interviewed by The Daily Princetonian between Tuesday and Wednesday, 197, or 76 percent, said they plan to get a vaccine not yet licensed in the United States that will be offered by the University to combat a campus outbreak of type B meningitis.
Since March, six students and one visitor have been hospitalized with the disease. The University announced Monday it will be importing doses of Bexsero, a meningitis B vaccine, for the Princeton community. The University will cover the cost of the vaccine for all who receive it.
Currently, vaccines licensed in the U.S. only protect against meningococcal types A, C, Y and W-135, not B, the type that has appeared on campus. Discussions to import Bexsero, which is produced by Swiss pharmaceutical company Novartis, started over the summer.
The vaccine is currently licensed for use in the European Union and in Australia. The decision to import the vaccine, sponsored by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and approved by the Food & Drug Administration, has gained national attention in recent days.
Thirty-six students, or 14 percent of those interviewed by the ‘Prince’, said they did not plan to get vaccinated and 26, or 10 percent, said they were not sure.
The 259 students were interviewed in Firestone Plaza, Frist Campus Center, Friend Center, Fine Hall, Jadwin Hall and the Graduate College.
The vaccine will be offered to undergraduates, graduate students living in dormitory rooms and community members whose pre-existing medical conditions may predispose them to the disease.
Currently, New Jersey state law requires all college students living in dorms to receive a licensed meningococcal vaccine, although a religious exemption can be made. Last year, only four undergraduates out of a student body of about 5,000 claimed that religious exemption.
The University will sponsor two rounds of the Bexsero vaccine after the CDC’s internal review board gives it final approval. Part of this review process will include determining the language to be used in a consent form for those receiving the vaccine, Thomas Clark, the epidemiology lead for the CDC’s Meningitis and Vaccine Preventable Diseases, said in a Monday interview.
Many of the students interviewed for this article said they thought national media coverage had exaggerated the severity of the situation and that the campus reaction has been on the whole less concerned.
“I feel like it’s been a bigger deal outside the campus than on campus,” Safa Syed ’17 said. “Every single one of my friends has called me and has just been like, ‘Are you OK?’ But everyone here feels like it’s ok, you aren’t going to get meningitis.”
Syed added that she would be getting the vaccination.
Ian McGeary ’16 said he has also faced concerned reactions from friends and family outside Princeton.
“It’s kind of funny because I do get more reactions from people outside the University,” McGeary said. “I keep getting texts and emails from friends who think we’re on lockdown, but when I look at the campus as a whole, everything seems to be functioning normally.”
McGeary said he is planning to get the vaccination.
Vikram Pothuri ’17 said having seven cases of meningitis called an “outbreak” on the national news has “made the situation seem more serious.”
Pothuri said he would be getting the vaccination.
The New Jersey Department of Health declared the situation at Princeton an outbreak after the fourth case was reported on May 20. Clark said that for the CDC, in general terms, three cases are considered an outbreak.
For some students, the news that the University is importing a vaccine from overseas has been sobering.
“My initial thought was ‘OK, they’re bringing this vaccine from another country and it’s not FDA approved. Why isn’t it FDA approved?’ I was very hesitant about that issue,” McGeary said. “I looked into it on my own, and I think that’s more of an issue of this strain not being as common in America.”
McGeary now said he feels the arrival of the vaccine will “clear everything up” in terms of the anxiety present on campus.
But many students interviewed said they weren’t very alarmed by the outbreak.
“I don’t feel like I’ve been affected emotionally,” Hannah Priddy ’17 said. “I don’t feel frightened or panicked, and I don’t really know anyone personally who has contracted the disease.”
Syed said the outbreak had made her more annoyed than worried.
“Emotionally,” Syed said, “it’s a major annoyance because every single one of my family members has called me and told me to be careful about meningitis.”
Many students said news of the vaccine has prompted them to take more precautions against the disease.
“I’m a little bit paranoid about it,” Rebekah Shoemake ’17 said, “but I’m trying to take precautions like washing my hands and not sharing drinks. Just being health conscious in general.”
Shoemake is also a contributing copy editor for the ‘Prince.’
While some are taking precautions, many also say the outbreak has not altered their behavior in general.
“I try to avoid sharing cups normally, but I have been a little bit more conscious about it in the past couple of weeks,” Pothuri said.
“I’ve been avoiding super close contact, but whenever someone gets sick, you always think ‘Oh, they could have meningitis,’” Michelle Tracy ’16 said. “I’m worried about [the outbreak], but there’s only so much you can do. You can’t avoid people just because [meningitis] is going around.”
Tracy said she would “probably” be getting the vaccination.
Many students said they felt the benefits of getting the vaccine outweighed the risks.
“My dad and grandfather are both infectious disease doctors, and they think it would be a good idea,” Rachel Zuckerman ’17 said. “I’m basing this all on their opinion. They think it’s probably worth it if it’s been authorized. They wouldn’t have authorized it if there were major risks.”
But some, like Priddy, said they do not plan on getting the vaccine.
“I just feel like I can avoid getting meningitis anyways, without the vaccine,” Priddy said. “I’m not going to share drinks with anyone. I’ll be careful. And I feel like it’s not really necessary to be vaccinated right now.”
Daniel Gitelman GS, who lives in the Graduate College, said he isn’t concerned about contracting meningitis, but he supports the University’s decision to import the vaccine.
“I think the emergency vaccine is a good idea,” Gitelman said. “People should have access to it, because it’s used in Europe so we should be able to use it here.”
Gitelman also said he would be getting the vaccination.
Although students said they were taking precautions against meningitis, the Student Health Advisory Board’s highly publicized “Mine. Not Yours.” cups initiative has not seen widespread use.
“I use it in my room sometimes, but I never bring it out,” Zuckerman said.
The University has sent emails to the student body in recent weeks warning students to take precautions to avoid contracting the disease. Many students said they feel that these emails and warnings have not had a huge impact on their behavior.
Gitelman said that though he “hasn’t read” the emails sent to him by the University, he is still being careful about his health.
Students were divided when asked whether the vaccine should have been ordered earlier.
“I think that if the vaccine could have prevented even one person from getting meningitis, then it should have been ordered earlier,” Shoemake said.
But others said they understood why the vaccine was ordered when it was.
“I know there have been a lot of ongoing discussions about it that I know were necessary to get to this point,” Zuckerman said, “so I’m happy with when the vaccine was ordered.”
Tracy said she approved of the University’s decision to import the vaccine now because the cases from last year and this year occurred over such a short time period.
Like many interviewed for this article, Shoemake said she doesn’t anticipate contracting meningitis.
“I think it’s something to be cautious about, but it’s not something that will impact my life,” Shoemake said. “Hopefully.”
Editor’s Note: The Daily Princetonian asked 259 students whether they planned to take the Bexsero meningitis B vaccine when it is offered on campus in December. The sample is not intended to be representative of the population, and the methodology was not intended to be scientific.
Staff writer Paul Phillips, contributor Chitra Marti, contributor Sheila Sisimit, contributor Corinne Lowe and contributor Do-Hyeong Myeong contributed reporting.