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UO students participating in meningococcal vaccine study

EUGENE — The University of Oregon is participating in a federal study examining whether two vaccines now being administered to thousands of students can reduce the population carrying the contagious bacteria at the center of the campus outbreak of meningococcal disease.

The study by the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, with help from state health officials, could one day prompt the federal government to broaden guidelines on who should receive the vaccines and how often, officials say.

The UO outbreak has sickened six people since January and caused the Feb. 17 death of freshman Lauren Jones.

Following Jones' death, the CDC directed the UO to inoculate nearly 22,000 people, including all undergraduates, with two vaccines that received federal approval within the last year. More than 10,000 students have received the first dose of vaccine so far.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration licensed the two vaccines — trade names Bexsero and Trumenba — based on data that suggested that they prevent the specific Type B bacteria from infecting the bloodstream or the brain and spinal cord's protective membranes, causing meningitis or meningoccocemia, two rare but potentially fatal diseases, said Lucy McNamara, a CDC scientist working on the study.

The study isn't examining the effectiveness of the vaccine to prevent individuals from getting sick.

Rather, it is examining whether the vaccines, as an additional benefit, can reduce the number of people carrying the Type B bacteria even if they never get sick from it, which is known as carriage. Some people can carry the bacteria without showing symptoms.

"That's really important, because people who are carrying the bacteria without getting sick are still capable of transmitting the bacteria to others," McNamara told The Register-Guard.

"Finding out if these vaccines impact the ... carriage of the bacteria is important for understanding their ability to promote herd immunity."

Herd immunity requires that a significant portion of a population get vaccinated against a infectious disease to protect people who have not been immunized by containing the spread of the disease.

So far, the CDC's expert panel that develops guidelines on vaccine use has recommended the use of the two vaccines only in cases of outbreak or for those at high risk of infection.

The panel will meet June 24 to decide whether to broaden the recommendation to include teenagers and college students, which could open the door to universities requiring incoming students to receive the vaccine. The UO and Oregon State University said they're looking at making that a requirement.

The study won't be completed in time for the coming meeting, but the results could influence the panel's recommendations on who should receive the vaccine or how often it should be administered, the CDC said.

For its study, the CDC collected throat swabs from student volunteers at the two mass vaccination clinics at Matthew Knight Arena and elsewhere on campus. Nearly 1,200 students volunteered during the first round of collection in March, and 1,330 students participated during the second round in May, McNamara said.

The federal agency will attend the third vaccination clinic scheduled in October.

McNamara said it's too early to share the results from the study because researchers only have preliminary data from the first round.