18 August 2016 09:04:00

MenW: The next big thing for students

Meningitis may be less common than it was, but it still devastates lives. Public Health England is now urging students to take a break from celebrating their exam results and get themselves protected against MenW.

It's official; I've been a doctor too long to see the world as others do. A-level results are out today, and students will be cheering and sobbing in equal measure. Months of hard work chained to a hot textbook; late nights and sweaty palms; then weeks of anticipation all leading up to this day. I feel your pain - believe me, I've been there - but while the 18 year olds' minds are full of Freshers' Week, I'm thinking meningitis.

Meningitis may be less common than it was, but it still devastates lives. Only a few months ago, all eyes were on young children as the debate over making the Meningitis B vaccine available to one to 11-year-olds took place. The UK offers immunisation against meningitis B and C, strains of the Meningococcal bacteria that cause the most widely known and deadly forms of meningitis and blood poisoning, to all babies.

Overall, there has been good news on bacterial meningitis since immunisation was introduced. Cases of bacterial meningitis and blood poisoning have halved in the last 25 years, although it's estimated at about 3,200 people a year are still affected. Much of this drop is down to a fall in the number of cases of meningitis C, which have gone down by 95% in the UK since immunisation was introduced .

What is MenW?

One form of meningococcal disease is bucking the downward trend. MenW only accounted for one to two per cent of cases seven years ago - by last year it was 25% of cases. It is also even more deadly, with a mortality rate of about 13% compared to 5-10% for other strains.

Teenagers, and particularly students, have borne the brunt of this rise, which is why Public Health England is urging students to take a break from celebrating their exam results and get themselves protected.

Last year, a new immunisation against Men W, A, C and Y was introduced on the NHS which means school students from year 9 upwards will all be offered the immunisation in future. But new university students won't be protected unless they attend their GP for the vaccine. Until last year, the immunisation offered at age 14 was just for MenC.

Why are students particularly at risk?

One of the reasons students are so likely to contract MenW compared to other groups is that they're in close contact with each other. But there's also much more of it about in this age group. Many people are 'carriers' of the meningococcal bacteria, but don't have any symptoms.

That means they can pass it on without even knowing they're affected. In fact, up to one in 10 of the population carries one of the Men strains - but in students, that figure is up to one in four.

No vaccine works straight away - we always recommend that people attend for travel vaccines at least eight weeks before they go abroad - and some vaccinations require a course which can take up to six months to have full effect. But there's still over a month to go before most university terms start, and a single immunisation against Men A, C, W, Y will last you your whole university career.

You may have thought the next step towards being an adult was working out how to use a washing machine or cook something other than baked bean toasted sandwiches. In fact, it should be a five-minute trip to see your practice nurse.

Dr Sarah is unable to provide medical advice or respond directly to questions concerning your health. If you have health concerns we recommend contacting your GP.