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Emergency meningitis vaccine will be imported to halt Ivy League outbreak

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PRINCETON, NJ – Emergency doses of a meningitis vaccine not approved for use in the U.S. may soon be on the way to Princeton University to halt an outbreak of the potentially deadly infection that has sickened seven students since March.

Government health officials said Friday they have agreed to import Bexsero, a vaccine licensed only in Europe and Australia that protects against meningitis B, a strain not covered by the shots recommended for college students in the U.S.

“This is a bad disease and we know how devastating it is,” Dr. Thomas Clark, acting head of the Centers for Disease Control’s meningitis and vaccine preventable diseases branch, told NBC News. “A lot of us had a gut feeling that there would be more cases and we should get the ball rolling.”

The unprecedented move could aim to inoculate the nearly 8,000 undergraduate and graduate students at the Ivy League school in hopes of stopping the spread of an illness that kills 10 percent or more of teens and young adults who get it.

“If you’re a student at Princeton University right now, your risk is quite high,” Clark said.

Officials at the New Jersey university were mum on the arrangement, providing no details about how or when a vaccination effort would be launched.

“We are not prepared to confirm anything at this time,” said Martin Mbugua, Princeton’s director of media relations. “This is a question we have been considering very carefully. We will be discussing it with our trustees this weekend and when we have something to announce, we will make an announcement.”

CDC officials asked for an IND, or investigational new drug application, to import the vaccine in early October, after the fifth case was diagnosed. Since then, two more students have fallen ill, including a male student who was hospitalized last weekend. The outbreak began in March, when a female student who left campus for spring break came back with signs of the disease.

All of the cases were caused by the B strain of the bacterium Neisseria meningitidis, university officials said. Six of the students who were sickened have recovered from the infection; the seventh is recovering. None of the cases is linked to the others, officials said.

Bexsero will be approved for use only in the Princeton community because of the seriousness of the outbreak, Clark said. Students at other colleges across the country are not in any greater danger of infection than usual, he added.

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JoNel Aleccia NBC News