It is not often that medical progress is needlessly delayed to the point that lives are lost. However, since the groundbreaking FDA approval of the first Meningitis B vaccine in October of 2014, several colleges and universities have had outbreaks including Princeton, Yale, Providence College, Oregon State, and UC Davis.  Why?  Because the newly approved vaccines have yet to be placed on the Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices (ACIP) list of recommended vaccines, despite the opportunity to do so in February of 2015.

 Gram-negative Neisseria meningitidis diplococcal bacteria/CDC
Gram-negative Neisseria meningitidis diplococcal bacteria/CDC

Bacterial meningococcal disease has several forms and until recently, the most deadly, Meningitis B, was without a vaccine.  The approval of a U.S.-produced vaccine was considered a huge step in the world of immunology.  A safe and effective vaccine can now prevent the most deadly form of this horrific, destructive disease, yet in this era of modern medicine it is not readily available.

The immediate necessity of ACIP to add Meningitis B to the list of recommended vaccines cannot be overstated. Ask the parents of Lauren Jones, the University of Oregon freshman who died February 17 of this year or any of the five other students diagnosed with Meningitis B on that campus in the past weeks. Sara Steltzer, a freshman at San Diego State University, who died in the fall of 2014 and Stephanie Ross, a 19-year-old Drexel University student, was a victim of this deadly disease in the spring of 2014.  In December of 2013, Aaron Loy, an 18-year-old freshman lacrosse player, had both of his legs amputated when the disease affected the blood supply to his limbs during an outbreak that affected four students.  There is no doubt – they would have wanted the vaccine to be available before their child entered college.

Meningococcal disease mimics the flu at first but escalates quickly, often before treatment can be received, leading to devastating complications such as hearing loss, brain or kidney damage, limb amputations or worse – death.  As it is now, without a readily available vaccine, about a third of the cases of meningitis in the U.S. will be the deadly strain of Meningitis B.  About 1 in 10 people who contract this vaccine-preventable, disease will die and of those who survive, one in five will be left with permanent disabilities.  College freshman are among the most susceptible to this disease because of the close quarters in dorm living, athletic and social settings.

Recently, England approved a Meningitis B vaccine to protect its children, yet American students remain vulnerable. In June of 2015 ACIP will meet to once again take up the issue of Meningitis B vaccine recommendations.  As a practitioner of modern medicine, I strongly encourage ACIP to accept this life-saving opportunity and recommend that Meningitis B is added to the list of recommended vaccines for all incoming college students nationwide.

Vandana Sinha is team medical director for Hospice of the Valley and former staff physician at Arizona State University Campus Health.