A leading health body is urging unvaccinated first year students to get immunised against meningitis and septicemia after a recent surge in cases of the deadly diseases.
Public Health England's (PHE) appeal comes after the latest PHE figures showed that less than a third (29.5%) of all young people leaving school last summer had been immunised with the Meningitis ACWY vaccine by the end of October. PHE introduced the vaccination programme in 2015 to tackle a sharp increase in the particularly virulent strain (Men W) that poses a high risk for new students.
Working with Universities UK and the leading meningitis charities, PHE has now updated its guidance to higher education institutions to help them raise awareness amongst students of MenACWY vaccination, and the signs and symptoms of the disease. This update is timely because of the year-on-year increase in cases of Men W across all age groups - from 22 cases in 2009/10 to 210 cases in 2015/16. As cases have increased, the total number of related deaths has also risen, with 1 in 8 people with MenW disease dying from the infection.
New students, especially freshers, are at a higher risk of meningococcal disease. They mix closely with large numbers of new people, some of whom will unknowingly be carrying the bacteria, without any signs or symptoms, enabling it to spread. Last autumn PHE appealed to new students to get vaccinated before starting university or, failing that, soon after arrival. Second year students who missed their vaccination last year are also eligible for immunisation.
The new guidance for universities recommends:
- Sending out key information and advice in joining packs to new students
- Encouraging them to register with their GP and get their Men ACWY vaccine as soon as possible, if not already vaccinated
- Putting a plan in place for dealing with cases and outbreaks
- Raising awareness about meningococcal disease among freshers, other students and staff every autumn
- The guidance also highlights one example of best practice from Nottingham University last year where students were offered vaccination at their freshers fair.
Universities are encouraged to advise students to make sure they tell someone if they feel unwell, and to keep an eye on friends who are ill. Students are also urged to seek medical advice immediately if someone has concerning symptoms, or their condition appears to be getting worse. Meningococcal disease can develop suddenly, usually as meningitis or septicaemia. Early symptoms include severe diarrhoea and vomiting, headaches, muscle pain, fever, and cold hands and feet. It can kill, or leave people with life-changing disabilities or health problems, like hearing loss, brain damage or the loss of a limb.
The vaccine, which also provides protection against the Men A, C and Y strains, not only protects those vaccinated, but it will help control the spread of the disease in the wider population.
Dr Dan Seddon, NHS Immunisation Lead, says: “This vaccine can be a life saver. It protects against one of the most serious forms of meningitis that particularly affects students. Many first year students will have already had the jab, but if they didn’t, then I would urge them to go to their GP practice and ask for the meningitis ACWY vaccine. Its free, it works, and it also protects friends and family.”
Nicola Dandridge, Chief Executive of Universities UK, said: “There has been an increase in Men W cases among young people and we must do all we can to ensure students are aware of the risks. Many universities have already taken measures to address the issue, with good results. Nottingham University found that 31% of their students were vaccinated before arrival at university, but following a campus-based vaccination campaign, this rose to 71%. The vaccination process is straightforward and universities up and down the country are making sure that it is as easy as possible for students to get vaccinated.”