A total of 770 students stepped into Matthew Knight Arena on Monday to get vaccinated against a contagious bacteria at the center of an outbreak that killed one University of Oregon student and sickened three others.
The sluggish start of the mass vaccination clinic came despite a heavy marketing push by the university through posters, stickers, a website and social media to encourage students to get the new vaccine to protect against meningococcal disease.
Public health officials have recommended that the university vaccinate nearly 22,000 people: all undergraduates, as well as graduate students and faculty who live on campus or have compromised immune systems.
But the university had reached less than 20 percent of that target as of Monday, including students who earlier got the vaccine at the UO Health Center or at the small-scale clinics held at the basketball arena last week. The tally doesn’t include students who got the vaccine at local pharmacies working in concert with the large-scale clinic, which runs from 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. through Thursday.
University spokeswoman Jen McCulley said Monday that it’s just the beginning of the campaign and she expects a gradual buildup of students through the remaining three days of the clinic.
When the clinic ends, the vaccine will still be available at the UO Health Center and pharmacies around the community, she said.
“It’s a long campaign,” she said. “It’s an opportunity to get it quickly and easily here” at the arena.
She noted that 51 percent of undergraduates received the first dose of a new but different vaccine when the University of California, Santa Barbara, organized large-scale clinics there in response to a similar outbreak last year.
Public health officials say that while students are at a very low risk of contracting the disease, it’s critical that as many students as possible get vaccinated to prevent any more cases at the UO.
Adding to the challenge is that students must get two follow-up doses, given at two and six months respectively after the initial dose, to get the greatest protection from the vaccine, which goes by the brand name Trumenba and is developed by Pfizer. The UO is scheduling follow-up clinics in May and September to do that.
And even then, public health officials are uncertain about exactly how well it works. Trumenba received accelerated approval from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration in October, but this is the largest population it’s been used on since that decision.
“We think it’s really important that students complete the series,” said Dr. Paul Cieslak, medical director for the Oregon Health Authority’s public health division. “The vaccine is really new. We don’t have a lot of data on how well it works. And the vaccine manufacturer, when going through the FDA approval, presented data on how good the immune response is with the three doses. It’s all predicated on completing the three series.”
A bacteria can cause potentially fatal meningococcal disease, which can lead to a blood infection known as meningococcemia, or meningitis — the swelling of protective walls of the brain and spinal cord.
Students may have already received a vaccine that protects against the four types of the bacteria that cause most incidents of the disease.
But until the FDA’s decision on Trumenba, followed by its approval of two-dose Bexsero in January, there was no vaccine against the B-type bacteria that sickened the three UO students and killed Lauren Jones, 18, a member of the university’ acrobatics and tumbling team.
A percentage of the population, known as carriers, can harbor the bacteria that causes meningococcal disease without it doing harm.
Once spread through kissing, sharing utensils or cups or by having prolonged close contact, it can lay dormant in the nose and throat of an infected individual for up to two weeks before dissipating or going on the attack. Once the latter occurs, however, a full-scale infection can kill in as little as 24 hours.
Dr. Patrick Luedtke, Lane County’s public health officer, said it’s likely that a new strain of the B-type bacteria arrived in the community and is being spread among college students, who are the most susceptible to it.
The bacteria has spread into the general community, but public health officials say it’s far less likely to spread outside the close confines of a university campus populated by thousands of young adults.
“In general, the risk to Oregonians, including those in Eugene outside the campus, appears to be very, very low and the vaccination is not recommended,” Cieslak said.
State and federal public health officials took throat swabs of students who volunteered at the clinic in an effort to learn how many students are carrying the bacteria and to better learn how effective Trumenba is at stopping its spread.
Public health officials say they don’t know when they’ll be able to call a conclusive end to the outbreak. The last confirmed case involved Jones, who died Feb. 17.
“I think it’s going to depend on whether we see more cases or not,” Cieslak said, “and it’s a conclusion we can only arrive at in retrospect so we’re going to recommend vaccination of all of these students and we’re going to hope we get no more cases.”
Toward that end, Danny Battle, a 21-year-old junior studying product design, stepped inside a largely quiet Matthew Knight Arena around lunchtime on Monday.
He filled out his paperwork, got poked with a needle by one of more than a dozen contracted pharmacists on hand to administer the shot, and waited about 15 minutes to ensure he didn’t have a bad reaction to it.
Battle said Jones’ death fazed a lot of students. As a part-time student living off-campus, Battle said he didn’t understand the significance of what was happening until his fraternity brothers prodded him to go to the clinic.
“If it weren’t for them, I wouldn’t have known it was so important,” he said.
Molly Andersen, another 21-year-old junior studying music technology, attended the same high school in Portland where a 17-year-old student, Jake Parkhurst, died of meningococcal disease a year ago.
So Andersen needed no major prodding when she learned of the chance to get a vaccine in the wake of Jones’ death.
“That kind of alerted everyone to how serious it was,” she said after receiving the vaccine. “Because before then, it was some kids who went to the hospital.”