UK Health Security Agency
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Around 1 in 8 new students unprotected against meningitis

Approximately 13% of new students missed their free MenACWY vaccine in school and remain unprotected against 4 deadly types of meningitis.

The UK Health Security Agency (UKHSA) and leading meningitis charities are urging students to make sure they have been vaccinated against meningitis and other diseases before the start of the academic year.

The NHS MenACWY immunisation programme for schools is offered to all pupils in year 9 and 10. UKHSA vaccine coverage data shows around 1 in 8 new students going to college and university this year remain unprotected against these 4 strains of meningococcal bacteria, each of which can cause long term disability, serious health complications and can be life threatening.

The latest 2021 to 2022 MenACWY coverage data shows the vaccination rate has fallen to 79.6%, which means that the figure will rise to around 1 in 5 pupils being unprotected when they start college or university in a few years’ time if they don’t catch up with their vaccinations.

All first-year students starting college or university this September and returning students who are not up to date with all their childhood and adolescent vaccines are at increased risk of serious diseases such as meningitis, septicaemia and measles as they mix with large numbers of other students from around the country and overseas.

We are urging all students to make sure they are up to date with all free routine NHS vaccines, and to know the signs and symptoms of meningitis and septicaemia as it could help save a life.

The 3 vaccines students should be up to date with before starting university or college include:

  • MenACWY – protecting against 4 common strains causing meningitis and septicaemia
  • MMR – protecting against measles, mumps, and rubella
  • HPV – protecting against human papilloma virus related cancers such as cervical cancer and other cancers of the head, neck and genital areas, and genital warts

Dr Shamez Ladhani, Consultant Epidemiologist at UKHSA, said:

Every year we see new and returning students get seriously ill, with some tragically dying, from what are preventable diseases.

With large numbers of students coming together from around the country and overseas for the first time, and closely mixing, infection can spread easily.

Ensuring you are protected against these deadly bugs is vital. If you’ve missed out on your meningitis (MenACWY), HPV or MMR jabs then contacting your GP for the vaccine should be top of your list of urgent things to do before starting college or university.

Lauren Sandell tragically passed away in her first year at university after contracting MenW disease. Sharon Sandell, Lauren’s mother said:

Lauren was feeling unwell one Thursday evening during her first year in university. She thought it was due to stress from settling into university. She returned home on Saturday evening saying that her legs hurt, and that she wasn’t feeling 100% alright. Then on Sunday morning she got sick and was visibly shaking.

We totally thought it was a panic attack and not at any point did I think her life was in danger. I will always be thankful that she was at home with me when she died but the experience of witnessing it will stay with me forever.

Such a tragic unnecessary end to a life of a beautiful girl who had so much life to live. If she had the vaccine, she would still be here today celebrating her 25th year of life. Up to 10% of young people in her age group have the bacteria naturally at the back of their throat. Please don’t think it can’t be you. Get the MenACWY jab today.

Claire Wright, Head of Insights and Policy at Meningitis Research Foundation, said:

Meningitis can kill healthy people within hours and in the early stages is difficult to distinguish from a bad hangover or more common milder illnesses. By taking up the free MenACWY vaccine, students are not only protecting themselves but also protecting others by stopping the bacteria from being passed on.

For young people who have already been vaccinated it remains important to be aware of the signs and symptoms of meningitis because the free vaccine does not protect against MenB, which is the most common cause of life-threatening meningitis amongst this age group.

The MenACWY vaccine is routinely offered to those in school years 9 and 10 but anyone who has missed out can still get a free jab with their GP until their 25th birthday.

The vaccine provides high protection against 4 common strains that cause meningococcal disease (meningitis and septicaemia) – MenA, MenC, MenW and MenY – but does not protect against all strains, like MenB, which is often common among students. So it’s important to know the signs and symptoms as it could help save your own or a friend’s life.

Meningitis and septicaemia can develop suddenly. Symptoms include a blotchy rash that doesn’t fade when a glass is rolled over it, fever, headache, aching muscles and joints and a stiff neck. The MenW strain can also cause vomiting and diarrhoea in teenagers and young adults.

Urgent antibiotic treatment and hospitalisation is critical. If you have concerns for yourself or a friend don’t hesitate to seek urgent medical help.

Meningitis Now Chief Executive, Dr Tom Nutt, said:

We know vaccination is the best way to protect against the devastation that meningitis can cause. Over many years the NHS’s vaccination programme has resulted in a steady drop in the number of cases of the disease, with countless lives saved as a result.

But more needs to be done. We estimate that up to half a million young people currently aged between 18 to 24 years old may have missed their MenACWY vaccine at school. In addition, we are growing increasingly concerned about the recent rise in meningitis cases across the UK. While the number of cases is still below those recorded pre-pandemic, any increase in the disease is worrying.

As part of the ‘Tackle Meningitis’ campaign we’re calling on everyone to take advantage of the MenACWY vaccination when it is offered, and please do check your vaccine status with your GP.

And with no vaccine available to protect against all types of meningitis, we’re also urging everyone to learn the signs and symptoms and to seek urgent medical attention if meningitis is suspected.

Michelle Bresnahan, who founded meningitis awareness charity A Life for a Cure following the sudden death of her son Ryan to MenB, said:

It’s important to make sure that getting up to date with your vaccinations is on your to-do list as you begin your preparations for university. Checking with your GP that you have these free vaccines is a quick and easy way to keep yourself safe.

Remember though, not all types of meningococcal disease are covered by the vaccine, including MenB. So, it’s vital you get to know the signs and symptoms, including a blotchy rash that doesn’t fade when a glass is rolled over it, fever, aching muscles and joints and a stiff neck. Doing so could save your life or that of a friend.

MMR vaccine

Measles is a highly infectious viral illness that can also have serious consequences. It can be more severe in teenagers and young adults, often leading to hospitalisation. Measles starts with cold-like symptoms and sore red eyes, followed by a high temperature and a red-brown blotchy rash.

Two doses of the MMR vaccine are routinely offered to young children, but it’s never too late to get the jab if you’ve missed out. Check your red book or contact your GP surgery if unsure. Anyone can get the MMR vaccine from their GP at any age.

HPV vaccine

The HPV vaccine is proven to significantly lower rates of cervical cancer in women vaccinated at a younger age. The evidence clearly shows it helps protect against other cancers of the genital areas and anus, as well as some cancers of the head and neck. The vaccine works and will save lives.

The HPV vaccine is available routinely for girls and boys in year 8. If you’re eligible and missed out, it’s available for free at your GP surgery until your 25th birthday for:

  • girls born after 1 September 1991
  • boys born after 1 September 2006

If you missed the vaccine at school, contact your school nurse, school immunisation team or GP surgery to arrange a catch-up.

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