meningitis vaccine

Uni students and teens advised to have Meningitis W vaccine

Posted on by Dr Tony Steele Posted in General

A particularly dangerous strain of Meningitis W bacteria has caused the number of bacterial meningitis and septicaemia (blood poisoning) cases to rise sharply since 2009. Men W has a higher death rate than other strains of the virus.

The vaccination is being offered to 17 and 18-year-olds born between the beginning of September 1996 and the end of August 1997, as well as students, particularly those under the age of 25, attending college or university for the first time.

Why the focus on Uni Students, why me?

Those heading off to Uni will be mixing with many new people, and some may unknowingly be carriers of the meningococcal bacteria. According to Public Health England, anyone going to university should get the vaccine before they leave, and health officials in Scotland and Wales are also urging freshers and school-leavers to visit their GP to get vaccinated.

Teenagers are the group most likely to have the bacteria in their noses and throats, and experts believe that focusing on this at-risk group will also indirectly benefit other vulnerable groups including older people and unvaccinated babies and children.

What is meningitis and how is it spread?

An infection of the meninges, which is the membrane that protects the spinal cord and brain, meningitis is normally caused by a viral or bacterial meningococcal infection. Viral meningitis is more prevalent and less dangerous; however, it is the dangerous bacterial form of the illness that is of concern at the moment. In rare cases it can lead to serious complications such as septicaemia.

The bacteria that cause bacterial meningitis are common and are present in the nose and throat, harmlessly, in about one out of 10 people. They can be divided into 13 groups, of which five are responsible for almost all grave meningococcal infections: meningitis A, B, C, W and Y.

Kissing, coughing, sneezing and sharing cutlery and utensils are all forms of meningitis transmission, as it is spread through close contact with a carrier of the bacteria.

The rise of Men W cases

The number of Meningitis W cases has increased from 22 cases in 2009 to 117 cases in 2014 , a rise of close to 93%. Meningitis W now accounts for about 25% of all meningococcal infections in England, and though still considered rare, it is dangerous. An average of four people died from Meningitis W per year from the years 2009 to 2012, however in 2013 and 2014 there were 24 deaths from the disease, including babies and toddlers for the first time in 10 years.

Meningitis W further sped up in 2015 due to an aggressive strain of bacteria; this new strain of Meningitis W is responsible for the rise in cases of the disease, which has a higher-than-usual death rate.

What are the symptoms, and can it be treated?

With rapid intervention, meningitis can be treated effectively. Anyone who suspects that they or their child may have meningitis should seek medical advice immediately.

The classic symptom of meningitis is a red rash made up of pin prick-like marks, which do not fade when a glass is rolled over them. Other meningitis symptoms include:

  • Fever over 37.5C (99.5F)
  • General feeling of being unwell
  • Headache
  • Aching muscles and joints
  • Irritability and low energy levels
  • Shortness of breath
  • Confusion
  • Stiff neck
  • Drowsiness
  • Dislike of bright lights
  • Seizure

In babies, meningitis symptoms may include refusing feeds, bulging spot on the head (fontanelle), floppiness or unresponsiveness, stiff body, agitation and not wanting to be picked up, and an unusual high-pitched cry.

Tests to diagnose bacterial or viral meningitis will need to be carried out in hospital, and may include a physical test, blood test, lumbar puncture or CT scan. Due to the gravity of bacterial meningitis and limited time frame for treatment, antibiotics will often be administered before a final diagnosis is made.

All cases of bacterial meningitis warrant treatment in hospital. With early detection and prompt treatment, the majority of meningitis patients fully recover from the illness. However, it is statistically fatal in one out of 10 cases and can have lifelong health implications such as deafness, epilepsy, learning disabilities and amputation.

Treatments for meningitis include:

  • Intravenous antibiotics
  • Intravenous fluids
  • Oxygen
  • Steroid medication to reduce swelling around the brain

Getting the vaccine

The meningitis ACWY vaccine protects against the infections, including meningitis and septicaemia, caused by the meningococcal groups A, C, W and Y. It works by triggering the body’s immune defences to make antibodies against the sugar coating on the four groups of bacteria.

The vaccine has the potential for mild side effects which normally diminish quickly. The most common side effects in teens and young adults are irritation at the site of injection, fatigue, nausea, headache and fever.

Getting the Meningitis W vaccine before going to Uni just means one less thing to worry about as you embrace the experience – it’s a precaution to keep you safe from potentially deadly bacteria, so if you haven’t already, add it to your list of things to do before heading off!