New university students urged to get meningitis vaccine

“Meningitis is potentially deadly, can kill within hours and first-year students are at particular risk of catching it.”


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First year university students should vaccinate themselves against meningitis, which could be mistaken for ‘freshers’ flu’ or a hangover, and put their lives at risk, council leaders are urging.

With students starting or returning to university this month, the Local Government Association (LGA), which represents 152 councils in England responsible for public health, is warning that they are at particular risk from the disease due to mixing closely and living with new people who may unknowingly carry the meningitis-causing bacteria.

Latest figures show there were a total of 748 cases of meningitis in England in 2016/17. These figures include 225 cases of an aggressive form of meningitis called Men W, which has killed one in three teenagers. Meningitis can also cause septicaemia (blood poisoning).

Those who recover from meningitis can be left with serious long-term health problems, such as amputation, deafness, blindness, epilepsy and learning difficulties.

But, with early diagnosis and anti-biotic treatment, most people make a full recovery.

One in four 15 to 19-year-olds carry the meningococcal bacteria – the most common cause of bacterial meningitis in the UK – in the back of their nose and throat, compared to one in 10 of the UK population, which puts them at greater risk.

The bacteria is spread by prolonged close contact – such as coughing, kissing or sneezing – with a person carrying the bacteria.

Early symptoms of meningitis can be similar to flu or even a hangover, and may be mistaken for other common illnesses. They include headache, vomiting, muscle pain, fever and cold hands and feet. 

A rash of tiny red pinpricks may also develop once septicaemia has set in. This rash does not fade under pressure – for instance, when gently pressing a glass against it.

Students showing symptoms of the disease should not wait for a rash to develop before seeking medical attention as meningitis can develop suddenly and progress within hours.

New and returning students are being urged to get up to date with meningitis vaccinations before the new academic term starts or as soon as they arrive at university.

Overall, anyone up to the age of 25 is strongly advised to get the vaccination, whether starting college or university, or not.

Cllr Ian Hudspeth, Chairman of the LGA’s Community Wellbeing Board, said:

“Students heading off to university are often living away from the watchful eye of their parents for the first time and their own health might not be a priority, which means meningitis can be missed, or wrongly dismissed as freshers’ flu.

“Meningitis is potentially deadly, can kill within hours and first-year students are at particular risk of catching it.

“We urge all those starting and returning to university this month to make sure they are up to date with their vaccinations. They should register with a GP surgery or health centre when they arrive at university and know how to contact them.

“It’s important that students know the signs and symptoms of meningitis, and look out for each other, particularly if a friend goes to their room unwell.

“Anyone who suspects they or a friend might have meningitis should seek urgent medical advice. Early diagnosis and treatment with antibiotics are vital as it could save their life.”

Dr Shamez Ladhani, Consultant Paediatrician at Public Health England, said:

“We know that colleges and universities can be hot spots for the spread of meningitis and septicaemia. First year students especially are at increased risk of meningitis and septicaemia if they are unvaccinated – which makes sense when they spend large amounts of time with new people in confined environments such as university halls.

“Thanks to our MenACWY vaccine programme, we saw a significant decline in MenW cases among 18-year-olds in the first 12 months after the programme was introduced. More importantly, for the first time since 2009, we are now seeing a decline in the total number of Men W cases across England.

“We need eligible people to keep getting the vaccine every year to ensure that this downward trend continues. We encourage students to check with their GP that they are up to date with their MenACWY vaccination before term starts – it’s never too late to protect themselves and their friends from such highly infectious diseases.”

Notes to editor

  1. Symptoms of meningitis
  2. The Men W strain of meningitis has killed one in three teenagers
  3. Meningitis statistics published by Public Health England
  4. Guidance on the prevention and management of meningococcal meningitis and septicaemia in higher education