Meningococcemia outbreak sickens three at the University of Oregon

PORTLAND, Ore. (Reuters) - The University of Oregon is facing an outbreak of potentially deadly meningococcemia infections, with three students diagnosed with the condition in less than a month, public health officials said on Tuesday.

Meningococcemia is a bacterial precursor to meningitis and can also lead to damaging blood infections, said Jason Davis, spokesman for Lane County Health and Human Services.

A male student diagnosed on Monday and a female student diagnosed on Feb. 3 both received early treatment and were expected to recover quickly, Davis said, but a female student diagnosed on Jan. 16 has had more difficulty recovering.

“Time will tell if she experiences long-term ramifications from the disease,” he added.

The University of Oregon is working with health officials to identify people who may have come into contact with infected students and to offer antibiotics as a preventive measure, school spokeswoman Jen McCully said.

Davis cautioned that the meningococcemia outbreak should not be cause for alarm for most students at the university.

“This is a disease that is hard to get,” he said. “If you haven’t been holding hands and sharing a soda, you are probably not at risk.”

Meningococcemia bacteria are common in the environment, but only spread with prolonged exposure, making outbreaks relatively rare, Davis said.

But it is not uncommon for one or two U.S. universities to report a small outbreak in any given year. Princeton University and the University of California at Santa Barbara both reported multiple cases in 2013.

Two new vaccines have recently been introduced to prevent the “type B” meningococcemia variation that’s been detected at the University of Oregon, while a “type a” vaccine has long been available, Davis said. Though recommended by the university, these vaccinations are not mandatory, he said.

Editing by Cynthia Johnston and Sandra Maler