In August 2023 as the new academic year looms, the UKHSA and leading meningitis charities are “urging” students to check their vaccination status for meningitis and other diseases. A year ago, a similar warning was issued, and now the UKHSA is suggesting that data indicate 1 in 8 new students going to college or university this year are unprotected against 4 strains of meningococcal bacteria. The NHS MenACWY immunisation programme for schools is offered to all pupils in year 9 and 10.  

Coverage drops 

Data shared in April this year suggest that coverage has dropped for both cohorts of year 9 students and year 10 students in the 2021-2022 academic year: 

  • Coverage for year 9 students was 69.2%, a 7.1% decrease on the previous year. 
  • Coverage for year 10 students was 79.6%, a 1.2% decrease on the previous year.  

The implications of these data are that around 1 in 5 students will be unprotected when they start university in a few years, unless they catch up on vaccinations.  

Increased risk 

First-year students and returning students are at “increased risk” of serious diseases such as meningitis, septicaemia, and measles, due to the mixing of large numbers of students from the country and overseas. Dr Shamez Ladhani, Consultant Epidemiologist at UKHSA, is concerned by the yearly numbers of new and returning students who get “seriously ill” or tragically die from “what are preventable diseases”.  

“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.”  

The vaccine is free to anyone from their GP until their 25th birthday.  

Lauren Sandell 

Lauren Sandell was a student who tragically died after contracting MenW disease during her first year at university. Sharon, her mother, described the symptoms, noting that “not at any point did I think her life was in danger”. Sharon urged others to get the vaccine, saying “please don’t think it can’t be you”.  

Signs and symptoms 

Head of Insights and Policy at Meningitis Research Foundation, Claire Wright, suggests that meningitis can “kill health people within hours”. Furthermore, in the early stages it 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.”  

Although many will have been vaccinated, Wright emphasises that “it remains important to be aware of the signs and symptoms” because the free vaccine “does not protect against MenB”. Chief Executive of Meningitis Now, Dr Tom Nutt, recognises that “vaccination is the best way to protect against the devastation that meningitis can cause”.  

“We are growing increasingly concerned about the recent rise in meningitis cases across the UK.”  

Michelle Bresnahan founded the awareness charity A Life for a Cure after the death of her son Ryan to MenB. She also encouraged young people to get up to date as part of “preparations for university”. However, she highlights that “not all types of meningococcal disease are covered by the vaccine, including MenB”. 

“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.”  

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