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Health Services Mobilizes Response to Meningitis Outbreak

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The members of our Silicon Valley Red Cross group really came through

Although a meningitis scare at Santa Clara University in early February hospitalized three students, the registered nurse who heads up the Disaster Health Services team at the American Red Cross of the Silicon Valley says the outbreak — occurring on a densely populated campus — could have been much more serious.

"It is a terrible disease that perfectly healthy people can die from in just a matter of days," says Susanne Newswanger, who quickly assembled members of her group to help vaccinate thousands of SCU students after tests confirmed that the hospitalized students were infected with the B strain of meningococcal bacteria. All three students recovered.

But that isn't always the outcome, Newswanger cautions. "It was a very scary situation for the students, their families, and the campus."

Newswanger is also grateful for the can-do attitude exhibited by members of her Health Services team. "We were activated by Santa Clara County Public Health, which, with almost no notice, found itself needing to vaccinate almost 5,000 students and not enough people to administer the shots."

In short order, six members of the Silicon Valley team volunteered to help with vaccinations, working a two-day shift in a school gymnasium in support of the county agency — and ultimately in support of the campus. "Given the number of people needing shots, the members of our Silicon Valley Red Cross group really came through," Newswanger says.

Dr. Sara Cody, Santa Clara County's health officer, agreed, praising the volunteers, members of her department, and university staff who expedited the vaccine clinics.

Newswanger said the volunteers who comprise the Silicon Valley group are current or retired RNs, LVNs (licensed vocations nurses), and EMTs. It's more typical for their health services work to be done in response to disasters, either at the local or national level.

"Helping at Santa Clara University was a different kind of assignment for our nurses," Newswanger says, adding that seven more members of the team volunteered two months later to help administer the second dose of the vaccine to the students.

The university said that 4,923 of a total of 8,681 undergraduate and graduate students at SCU received the meningococcal B vaccines during the emergency clinics; the vaccines offer protection against that particular strain of the disease.

Susanne Newswanger, pictured, quickly assembled members of her Disaster Health Services team to help vaccinate thousands of Santa Clara University students.