Immunisation experts and university leaders urge first year university students (Freshers) to come forward for a vaccine to protect them against meningococcal C infection following recent reports of cases of meningococcal disease among the student population.
Provisional figures show that 21 cases of meningococcal disease have been reported in university students since the start of the academic year in September 2014. Only two of the cases have been confirmed as due to serogroup C infection – but the total number emphasises the higher risk of disease that occurs in students at this time of year.
All UK children are offered Meningococcal C (Men C) vaccine to protect against MenC infection but, as the protection offered by the vaccine in pre-school children can wane, a booster for teenagers at school was introduced and also offered to students from August this year.
The programme was scheduled to run until the end of October, but NHS England has confirmed the programme will be extended until March 2015. Recent cases of meningitis and septicaemia have resulted in increased awareness of the disease, leading to reports of more Freshers coming forward for the vaccine that protects against the ‘C’ strain of the disease.
Dr Mary Ramsay, Head of Immunisation for Public Health England, said:
“Meningococcal C disease is a rare but life-threatening infection that occurs mainly in children and young adults. Students starting university and mixing with lots of new people, some of whom may unknowingly carry the meningococcal bacteria, are at risk of infection.
“As the protection offered by the infant MenC vaccine wanes over time we are reminding university Freshers of the importance of getting a booster, even if they received it as a young child.
“Until March 2015, the MenC booster is available to any student entering university for the first time who has not received a teenage booster and for those under 25 years of age who have never been vaccinated.
“If you can’t remember, the best thing to do is to check with your doctor. Ideally, Freshers should have the MenC vaccination before they go away to study, but it’s not too late for students who didn’t receive the vaccine before starting university. Anyone in their first year of university who hasn’t had the booster should arrange to get it as soon as possible, via their university or college health centre or GP. If in doubt, there is no harm in having an extra dose.
“We should remember that the vaccine will only protect against strains of infection caused by serogroup C, so students should also be aware of the signs and symptoms of the disease and seek medical attention if they have any concerns. It’s important to look out for your mates – check they’re ok if you haven’t seen them for a while.”
Symptoms of meningococcal disease and septicaemia can include:
- severe headache, light sensitivity
- neck stiffness
- fever, aching
- cold hands and feet/ shivering
- pale, blotchy skin with or without a rash. It may appear anywhere on the body as tiny red ‘pin pricks’ which can develop into purple bruising, and does not fade under pressure. Do the glass test.
Anyone experiencing some of these symptoms should go to their GP or medical centre, or attend an NHS Walk-in centre or the hospital Accident and Emergency Department.
Christopher Head, Chief Executive of Meningitis Research Foundation, said:
“We have watched with alarm the number of cases of meningitis among students this autumn and welcome Public Health England’s decision to extend its excellent MenC booster programme for freshers. This action will save lives from a cruel and destructive disease which can kill or seriously disable in hours. We urge freshers to make sure they get their booster as soon as possible. Sadly there are other forms of meningitis that are not so easily prevented. So it’s vital students know the signs and symptoms of meningitis and septicaemia and that they look out for one another, seeking medical help fast if they have concerns.”
Nicola Dandridge, Chief Executive of Universities UK, added:
“Universities take the health and well-being of their students very seriously. We encourage students to follow Public Health England’s recommendation that all first-year students should be vaccinated against meningococcal C disease. We will work closely with universities as well as the relevant individuals within student services and university administration to ensure they are well-informed on the matter.”
The vaccine is also important for students coming to study from abroad who are unable to get the vaccine at home. As with all first year UK students, they should obtain it as soon as possible.
Sue Davie, chief executive of Meningitis Now, said:
“Only this morning a student contacted us to tell us about his experience of meningitis. He told us ‘unfortunately, before falling ill, I hadn’t heard much about meningitis and wasn’t vaccinated. I would love to increase awareness as this is such a serious disease and affects people in my age group’. Please heed his advice and ours, get vaccinated and learn the signs and symptoms, so you can look after yourself and your friends.”
A student information leaflet on the MenC vaccine is available at: https://www.gov.uk/government/collections/meningococcal-c-menc-vaccination-programme
Source: Public Health England (PHE)