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Novartis to seek OK for vaccine for meningitis type B, which killed Upper St. Clair woman

| Tuesday, March 18, 2014, 1:01 p.m.

Pharmaceutical giant Novartis said it will apply for a U.S. license as early as this spring to begin marketing a meningitis vaccine for the type B strain of the deadly infection that killed an Upper St. Clair woman at Drexel University last week.

Although most universities, including Drexel, require that students be immunized for meningitis, there is no approved U.S. vaccine for the type B strain that killed Stephanie Ross, 19, of Upper St. Clair on March 10.

Novartis' meningitis B vaccine, called Bexsero, has been approved for use in Europe since January 2013, and the company plans to apply during the second quarter of this year for permission to market it in the United States for adolescents and young adults, company spokeswoman Julie Masow said.

Type B meningitis, which can lead to death or permanent disability within 24 hours of the onset of symptoms, was responsible for about 160 of 500 American meningitis deaths in 2012, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Drexel University officials said Ross, a sophomore majoring in mechanical engineering, was taken to Penn Presbyterian Hospital on March 10 when her housemates at the Phi Mu sorority house found her unconscious.

Ross was a 2012 graduate of Upper St. Clair High School, where she was a softball player, volunteer and National Merit Scholar.

Federal health officials on Tuesday said she died of the same strain of meningitis B that has sickened seven students and a visitor at Princeton University in New Jersey since March 2013.

Drexel and Princeton are less than 50 miles apart. According to the CDC, Ross had been in close contact with students at Princeton about a week before getting sick.

Meningitis causes swelling of the membranes covering the brain and spinal cord, and is fairly rare in the United States. But the illness develops quickly. Symptoms include a stiff neck, nausea, vomiting, light sensitivity and confusion.

The Food and Drug Administration granted Novartis limited investigational use of Bexsero in response to meningitis B outbreaks at the University of California at Santa Barbara, where four cases were recorded in November, and at Princeton.

Although all of the students who were sickened at the two universities survived, more than 9,000 students at the University of California at Santa Barbara received vaccinations in February and March, and nearly 9,000 Princeton students were vaccinated in December and February.

“If the vaccine is approved, I think it will be widely recommended,” said Dr. Amesh Adalja, an infectious disease specialist at UPMC. “The fact that there can be a countermeasure against this is going to put pressure on colleges to require it,” Adalja said.

The Associated Press contributed. Debra Erdley is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 412-320-7996 or derdley@tribweb.com.

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