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Healthy universities: new guidance on meningococcal disease

11 November 2016

Helen Campbell

Senior Clinical Scientist
Public Health England

With half of all school leavers going to university, public health authorities are increasingly working with students and staff to promote and support good health in higher education. 

Students and staff may have specific vulnerabilities related to their age, to health risks in countries they travel from or to, or to transitions such as moving from home, going from children's to adult services, and growing up and exploring new identities.

At  Public Health England (and our devolved nation equivalents), we work with the public, private and third sectors to address both long-term challenges such as student mental health and specific risks such as Ebola.

A current public health challenge we are working together to combat is meningococcal disease. We know that UK higher education students are at increased risk of this disease compared to their peers. This is particularly true for first years in the opening weeks of the autumn term.

Usually presenting as meningitis (inflammation of the brain lining) or septicaemia (blood poisoning), this is a potentially life-changing – and sometimes fatal – disease. There is currently an outbreak of particularly nasty strain of meningococcal group W (MenW) disease in the UK. To protect against this, all 2015 and 2016 school leavers have been offered the MenACWY vaccine. If they missed the offer, they can still have the vaccine free of charge from their GP.

Public Health England and Universities UK, in partnership with the Meningitis Research Foundation, Meningitis Now, NHS National Services Scotland, Public Health Wales and Public Health Agency in Northern Ireland, have just revised UK guidance on the prevention and management of meningococcal meningitis and septicaemia in higher education institutions. This now covers the new vaccination for students. Implementing the guidance as this will help save lives, so we encourage all universities to get behind it.

There are three key components to the guidance:

1. Raising awareness

Students and staff should be informed about meningococcal disease and its common signs and symptoms. MenW can be difficult to diagnose because it has been associated with symptoms infrequently seen with meningococcal disease, such as severe diarrhoea and vomiting. It’s vitally important to seek help early. 

It is important that all students know to tell someone if they feel unwell. Medical advice should be sought immediately if someone has symptoms of concern or if their condition is getting worse.


2. Promoting immunisation

There are many ways in which universities can alert new students about the need to get vaccinated. We know that universities’ efforts, in collaboration with their student health partners, can make a difference: uptake of MenACWY vaccinations has increased when it has been offered opportunistically to freshers. Many posters and leaflets are available free of charge to help raise awareness and information on this is in the guidelines.

3. Planning ahead

Universities should have staff and protocols in place to raise awareness, promote vaccination and support students and staff should a case of meningococcal disease arise.

More information is available from Public Health England and the meningitis charities Meningitis Research Foundation and Meningitis Now

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