Federal authorities may distribute an unlicensed vaccine in response to an outbreak of a rare form of meningitis at the University of California, Santa Barbara.

Four students contracted meningococcal disease type B last week, with three recovering and one suffering complications. The outbreak closely follows a similar cluster at Princeton University, where federal and state authorities distributed the vaccine to more than 5,300 people in the community, including most of the school’s 5,000 undergraduates.

Typically, people who contract the disease may develop either meningitis, or infectious attack on the protective tissue surrounding the brain and spinal column, or other illnesses including bloodstream infections. Although people may develop meningitis from fungal and viral sources, such bacterial sources pose the worst threat as dangerous and highly communicable.

"It's the bacterial meningitis branch that packs the most powerful punch. Its bacterial swarm can cause brain damage, hearing loss, or learning disabilities," according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

By the weekend, federal and state health authorities continued to asses the pros and cons of using the vaccine on the West Coast campus, given potential risks. Susan Klein-Rothschild, a spokeswoman for the County, told The Los Angeles Times on Friday no decision had been reached. “The CDC is communicating with local and state officials about the [campus] situation and is the lead on the vaccine issue,” she said.

Meningococcal disease may begin as an extremely unpleasant chest cold, and may develop into stiff neck, headaches, fever, delirium, and vomiting. At worst, the disease can cause permanent brain damage or death. In treating the disease, doctors frequently must amputate the legs of those with tough cases. Although fungal and viral meningitis types tend to focus on the elderly, the bacterial type prefers the young and closely quartered, making college campuses ideal incubators for the disease.

However, bacterial meningitis remains rare in the United States, according to the CDC. Some 480 cases were reported last year, with survival rates of 85 percent for those taking all available medical treatments.