The strain Meningitis W surfaced in the past decade and vaccines have only been available since 2015, leaving a generation of students unprotected. While the vaccination is now given as part of the in-school vaccination system, current 16-20 year olds have missed out, and are at higher risk as they enter university. Freshers have a significantly higher chance of contracting the illness due to being exposed to a large variety of new people carrying strains of illnesses they will not have previously encountered.
There is also a concern for international students, who may be vaccinated to different levels than those in the UK, and are strongly encouraged to register with a GP and get vaccinated as soon as they arrive at their university. Scottish schools have a more comprehensive vaccination system, offering the vaccine to all 14-18 year olds since the 2015/2016 school year, meaning that the majority of freshers entering university this year will already be immunised. Due to the success of this system, NHS Scotland no longer run a targeted freshers’ programme while Public Health England continues to do so. However, as the vaccine is fully integrated into the Scottish school vaccination system, in January 2019, it will become harder to get the vaccine at GP surgeries and university medical centres, posing a problem for non-Scottish students coming to study in Glasgow.
The strain, covered by the vaccine MenACWY, can lead to serious life-changing disability or even death, making it essential that freshers are covered as they enter the hotspots of universities and university halls. One in ten people carry a strain of meningitis bacteria at the back of their throats that is harmless to them, but as they enter university they will come across strains they do not have a natural immunity to. They then risk catching the infection through spread of the bacteria via coughing, sneezing and kissing. Symptoms of meningitis, such as headaches, vomiting and stiff muscles, can often be mistaken for a bad hangover or “Freshers’ flu”.
A recent inquest into the death of a university student who contracted MenW said that almost all cases of the disease in students are preventable, and that there should be increased action to encourage 16-19 year olds to get the vaccination. Lauren Sandell, 18, began studying Sports Science at Bournemouth University in September 2016 before falling ill with the illness just two weeks into the semester. On October 1 that same year, Lauren tragically passed away after experiencing symptoms such as breathlessness, sickness, headaches and blurred vision.
Last year’s figures show only one third of 16-19 year olds got the vaccination, and across the UK there have been 73 cases of this meningitis strain in the first quarter alone. Figures also show that around 45% of people have never consulted a doctor or nurse to see if they have received all of their free vaccinations, and a quarter of parents don’t know what vaccinations their teenagers have had. Furthermore, research from the Meningitis Research Foundation (MRF) has found that up to 40% of teenagers and university are receiving follow-up meningitis vaccines.
Helen Donovan, Professional Lead for Public Health at the Royal College of Nursing, said: “Freshers starting university this September are more at risk from Meningitis W, a particularly nasty strain that can kill, or leave people with life-changing disabilities.
“Vaccination offers protection against most strains of the disease, and it’s quick, easy and free, but they need to contact their GP in good time. The vaccine can take up to two weeks to become effective.
“Some may have been travelling over summer or working before university. But the risk is real and getting vaccinated saves lives. If you’re not sure you’ve had the vaccine, contact your surgery now and book an appointment with the practice nurse.”
Freshers are advised to get the vaccination before they leave for university, but the rush of students at the end of August may leave some GP surgeries out of the vaccination and freshers may have to wait. However, the vaccine is still essential, whenever it is administered. Students will have to register with a new GP that is within their postal code area when arriving at university, and will be able to make an appointment to get vaccinated at any of the practices as soon as they are registered.
You can find your closest GP at nhs24.com/FindLocal, but students from all Glasgow University student accommodation can register at the Barclay Medical Practice, which is in the Fraser Building on campus. Once registered students can make an appointment for the vaccination, which will be with a nurse and take about 10 minutes. The vaccination is offered free on the NHS to everyone before their 25th birthday. If students are concerned that they may be displaying symptoms of Meningitis, they are encouraged to ring NHS 24 on 111 immediately to talk to a medical professional.