AMHERST — With its Amherst campus filled with students who just returned from Thanksgiving break, University of Massachusetts officials on Tuesday said they are treating two cases of meningitis as an outbreak.

"Following additional, extensive testing of the two student cases of meningococcal disease on campus, University Health Services (UHS), in concert with the Massachusetts Department of Public Health and the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), has determined that because the two cases originated from a single strain of genetically identical organisms, this meningococcal disease should be considered an outbreak. The CDC conducted the testing," George Corey, executive director of University Health Services, wrote in an email to the campus community.

Meningococcal disease, which can occur suddenly in otherwise healthy people, is a potentially deadly infection caused by bacteria. When the infection occurs in the brain or spinal cord, it is called meningitis. The disease kills 10 to 15 percent of infected people, even with medical treatment. The meningitis vaccine required to attend UMass covers strains A, C, Y and W.

The first student was diagnosed Oct. 24 and another student was diagnosed Nov. 12. The infected students were not in close contact, the university has said.

The memo continued, "As a result, University Health Services is recommending that students at the highest risk receive serogroup B vaccinations at a series of four walk-in clinics during the next two weeks. Those at the highest risk include: all undergraduates, graduate students living in undergraduate housing, and all students with conditions such as asplenia, a complement deficiency, sickle cell anemia or those taking the medication Solaris. This includes both on-campus and off-campus students. CDC protocols do not consider faculty and staff to be within this risk group, except for those with the conditions listed above. Faculty and staff who are concerned about exposure to meningitis or are interested in being vaccinated are encouraged to contact their primary care provider."

Updates, answers to frequently asked questions and details about insurance are being posted at

The university has been vaccinating students over the past two weeks, and Meningococcal B vaccine has been administered by appointment to more than 1,400 students. Large walk-in clinics are now being planned in the Cape Cod Lounge of the Student Union.

"We will need your utmost cooperation and attendance to protect you from this preventable, serious illness," Corey wrote. "Meanwhile, the campus will safely maintain regular operations. There are no plans to interrupt any classes, attendance or housing at UMass due to Meningococcus B."

University officials continue to advise people there not to swap saliva and to avoid sharing food, drinks and personal items that contact saliva.

"Because the current situation is an outbreak, your health insurance or prescription plan should cover this vaccination, and UHS will take steps to bill insurance for the service," Corey wrote. "Please remember to bring your insurance card with you to the clinic. In any case, undergraduate students who attend the clinics will be provided the vaccine, no matter the ability to pay. Students will not incur any costs associated with co-pays, deductibles or insurance denials."

--Michael P. Norton, State House News Service

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