The real-life meningitis scandal

Last Thursday, 10.5 million viewers tuned into the season finale of Scandal on ABC. Among the episode's many twists [spoiler alert], the sudden death of the president’s college-age son from a rare strain of meningitis may have been the most shocking.

While the circumstances of this scenario seemed fit for a prime-time drama, meningitis actually strikes hundreds of American college students each year. Although villainous government bureaucrats aren’t secretly introducing the disease to university campuses, the federal government isn’t doing everything it can to protect college students from meningitis and prevent more tragic and needless deaths.

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Just last month, an equally rare strain of the disease killed a student from Pennsylvania. The young woman who passed away--19-year-old Stephanie Ross--was a sophomore at Drexel University. The university requires all students to be vaccinated against meningitis, but the portfolio of vaccines approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) does not include a vaccine for meningitis type B (MenB), a strain of the disease that is responsible for about one-third of domestic meningitis cases and the strain believed to have killed Ross. MenB is a preventable disease, but the FDA has refused to approve the MenB vaccine (Bexsero), shamefully inviting tragedies like these through bureaucratic mismanagement.
 
The ongoing MenB outbreak at American colleges and universities began over a year ago at Princeton University and has affected at least 13 students on three campuses. Throughout this time, the FDA has kept Bexsero wrapped up in red tape, even after its peer regulators in Canada, the European Union, and Australia approved the drug for use and made it available to college students.

Because the vaccine remained suspended in regulatory limbo, nearly 9 months lapsed between the first reported case of MenB and the arrival of the first vaccines--a limited supply imported by the FDA--at Princeton, whose 8,000 students remained defenseless to the disease, which permanently maims 1 in 5 survivors and can kill within 24 hours of contraction.

As Princeton awaited its supply of vaccines, a second strain of MenB broke out 3,000 miles to the west at UC-Santa Barbara in November, affecting at least four students and causing one freshman lacrosse player to lose both of his feet. Again, the FDA failed to act with urgency, and the campus did not receive its supply of medicine until February. So delayed was the agency’s reaction that one UCSB mother--a medical doctor--sent her son to London to be vaccinated before allowing him to return to campus, saying, “I would be remiss to send him back into that zone without protection.”

College campuses shouldn’t be public health threats, and American students should never have to travel to nations with lower biotechnological capacities to receive medical care. The FDA’s lack of aggressive action deprived Ms. Ross’ parents of the ability to inoculate their daughter, and nearly a month after her death, students at Drexel--and surrounding colleges--remain every bit as vulnerable to MenB as she was.

The FDA can’t afford to treat MenB after it strikes. Its extreme aversion to risks and rigid bureaucratic processes have already caused too much harm. By granting a special license for the MenB vaccine, similar to the type it often grants to make flu shots available ahead of flu season, the FDA could curb future outbreaks and keep children safe.

Additionally, the agency needs to reevaluate its approach to the drug approval process, and take steps to better prepare itself for future public health crises so that afflicted campuses are not left waiting months for the medicine they need to protect their students. After all, the best health policy is one that prevents deadly disease, not one that only treats citizens weeks and months after an outbreak occurs.

It’s simply not right that young people in other parts of the world should have better access to life-saving medicine than American students do. It shouldn’t take a drama-filled TV finale to call the government’s attention to a very real problem, but perhaps Scandal can convince the real-world Washington that it’s time to take action and protect college students.

Telford is senior vice president of the Franklin Center for Government and Public Integrity.

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