At the end of last Saturday’s varsity women’s Princeton University—Boston College hockey game, the players lined up at center ice for the traditional team-to-team good sportsmanship handshake. “Normally,” says Princeton forward Sally Butler, a senior, “you take your gloves off to shake. But the B.C. team didn’t.” The reason, she later heard: the coach was worried about meningitis. “I was kind of amused,” says Butler. “I don’t think I would necessarily worry about it.”
When the first case of meningitis B hit Princeton last spring, in fact, most students didn’t worry about it at all. “It was something people joked about,” says Greta Shum, also a senior. But that all began to change last week with the seventh reported case of bacterial meningitis since March. That would be a tiny number for a disease like flu, but it’s pretty big for a relatively rare strain of a relatively rare but potentially fatal disease, which can progress from mild symptoms to death in just hours if untreated. New Jersey health officials were sufficiently concerned to declare an outbreak after the first three cases.
That still wasn’t enough to get students worried, though, and neither was the seventh case, announced last week. For them, the galvanizing event was the fact that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has authorized the importation of a vaccine that’s still unapproved for use in the U.S. As of Monday, the university hadn’t decided whether or not to use the vaccine, which would presumably be voluntary for the 8,000 undergrads and grad students on campus (but not available at all for faculty and staff, since the students are considered more likely to engage in the high-risk behaviors of kissing, sharing cups or being in close enough contact with each other to inhale infected saliva or mucosal droplets from sneezes and coughs.)
But the fact that the CDC is now involved—plus the network TV news trucks parked just off campus—has both students and parents a lot more concerned than they have been. “My mom was here last weekend,” says a sophomore who preferred not to give his name, “and she bought me, like seventy bottles of water so I wouldn’t risk sharing a cup with anyone.”
To reduce the risks posed by cup-sharing, the university distributed thousands of plastic cups at the beginning of the year emblazoned with the phrase “Mine, not Yours” on them, and students report frequent emails from deans and health-services staff reminding them to be careful. In anticipation of last weekend’s Homecoming football game and campus-wide Orange and Black Ball, an email went out with the subject line “Alcohol and Meningitis,” which reminded students, according to a report in the campus Daily Princetonian newspaper: “The more you drink, the more your judgment may decrease about sharing objects that come into contact with the mouth, thereby increasing your risk of disease.”
“They’ve definitely raised awareness,” says Shum. “People have been more likely to cough into their sleeve. But they haven’t stopped touching people they would normally touch.” As for more intimate ways of sharing bodily fluids, says Meredith Wright, a 2013 graduate who returned for Homecoming, “people were still kind of joking—like, ‘don’t make out with too many randos [i.e., random people].’ But the tone seems to have gone from joking to ‘wow, this could be serious.’”
As with any public health campaign, sometimes the message can be a little too effective. “My advisees are coming to me saying they’re freaked out,” says Shum, an upperclass advisor in one of Princeton’s residential colleges. “I think it’s good that the university has raised awareness, but I think this has become a bit scarier than is really necessary.”
A decision to make the vaccine available might help lower the anxiety level somewhat. But it’s not clear how useful the move would be in practice. The Bexsero vaccine, approved for use in Europe and Australia, was rejected last summer by U.K. authorities. The reason: its effectiveness hasn’t been sufficiently established. And some experts note that there is no guarantee that the particular group B strains circulating at Princeton are the same ones included in the vaccine from Europe.