Press release

Meningococcal disease cases peak in winter: PHE urges vaccination

Seasonal meningococcal spike prompts call for students to protect themselves against meningitis and blood poisoning.

Vaccination courtesy NHS library

Public Health England (PHE) is calling for teenagers to get the MenACWY vaccine as cases of meningococcal disease, that can lead to meningitis and septicaemia (blood poisoning), are anticipated to spike in the winter months.

All teenagers aged 18 and 19 (born between 01 September 1996 and 31 August 1997) are eligible to receive the vaccine for free regardless of whether they’re studying or pursuing other activities.

PHE figures show that cases of meningococcal disease peak each year during winter: December through to March as appears in the graph.

Meningococcal cases graph winter peak over 5 years

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The meningococcal infection spreads through close persistent contact with people who unknowingly carry the bacteria, and so PHE is urging students to take up the vaccine during their university break before GPs surgeries close for Christmas: before they return to university and halls of residence, where they are often in close contact with many other students.

Meningococcal bacteria can cause meningitis (inflammation of the lining of the brain) and septicaemia (blood poisoning). Both diseases are very serious and can kill, especially if not diagnosed early.

The call for students to get vaccinated follows the introduction of a new MenACWY vaccination programme in August that offers teenagers protection against four common meningococcal strains.

The MenACWY vaccine was introduced this year in response to a rapid increase in cases of a highly aggressive strain of group W meningococcal disease. Cases of MenW have been increasing year-on-year, from 22 cases in the 2009 to 2010 season to 176 in 2014 to 2015 season.

It is currently responsible for around a quarter of all laboratory-confirmed meningococcal cases in England.

Dr Mary Ramsay, Head of Immunisation at PHE said:

As students head home for the winter break, we urge them to contact their GP to get vaccinated, if they haven’t already done so.

Think of it as an early New Year’s resolution and keep yourself and your friends safe by getting vaccinated.

Joanne Yarwood, National Immunisation Programme Manager at PHE, said:

As a mum of teenagers, I know how busy their lives can be, and so I urge all parents of 18 and 19 year olds to put a MenACWY vaccine on their family’s list of essential things to do before the festive holiday period. Meningitis can be deadly and survivors are often left with severe disabilities as a result of this terrible disease. Encouraging your son or daughter to have the MenACWY vaccine could save their life, or prevent them from permanent disability.

Dr Ramsay added:

We must all remain alert to the signs and symptoms of meningococcal disease and seek urgent medical attention if there is any concern. The disease develops rapidly and early symptoms can include headache, vomiting, muscle pain and fever with cold hands and feet.

Be aware of all signs and symptoms and trust your instincts: don’t wait for a rash to develop before seeking urgent medical attention.

Sue Davie, CEO at Meningitis Now, said:

We echo Public Health England’s timely reminder to get students and young people vaccinated against Men ACWY. There has already been a number of cases of meningitis amongst young people since the start of the new university year and I would urge parents to do whatever it takes to get their children immunised and protected whilst they are at home during the festive period.

Vinny Smith, CEO at Meningitis Research Foundation, said:

As Christmas draws near, we are also approaching the peak time for meningitis and septicaemia. This is a great opportunity for students who haven’t already had the MenACWY vaccine to start the New Year protected against this deadly strain. But remember, meningitis and septicaemia strike fast, and some strains can’t be prevented. It’s important to know the symptoms and be prepared to act quickly if you get ill or if you are worried about someone who is ill.

Case studies

Charlotte Hannibal, now 19, spent 17 days in an induced coma and lost both her legs after contracting meningococcal group W disease leading to meningitis and septicaemia in February 2015. She said:

After returning to university from a family weekend at home, I attended all my Monday lectures and classes feeling as healthy as ever. But, by Tuesday morning I was ringing my parents asking if I could come home. I felt unwell but thought I just had a common flu. My symptoms included feeling cold, shivering, and a sore throat. On Wednesday afternoon, my parents took me to hospital.

I arrived at hospital at 4:17pm and by 6:30pm I had suffered from complete organ failure. The medical staff made the decision to put me into an induced coma, so I was told to say goodbye to my family. I hoped that when I awoke I would feel much better.

During the 17 days I was asleep I fought for my life and eventually began to fight off the infection. I was left with severe memory loss so was unable to remember being ill at all. My hearing was also damaged, and at this stage, I was unable to move anything but my eyes and mouth. But it was my first step towards recovery.

I spent a total of 27 days in intensive care and 12 weeks on a burns and plastics ward. I had both legs amputated below the knee and lost all my fingers on my left hand. I’m very grateful to be alive and well.

I ask that students get the MenACWY vaccination to avoid the agony I went through. Protect yourself and your friends against meningococcal disease by getting vaccinated.

19-year-old Teaching Assistant, Emily Styles, had her whole life ahead of her when she was suddenly struck down with meningococcal meningitis on New Year’s Eve 2013. Her mum, Julia recounts the story:

Emily Charlotte Styles, our most beautiful brown-eyed girl, fell ill suddenly on New Year’s Eve morning. She collapsed and did not regain consciousness.

She had been fit and well over Christmas. We had to make the heart-breaking decision to turn off the machines keeping her alive on New Year’s Day, 2014, just as so many people were celebrating the start of a new year.

Emily was just 19 years and nine months old when she died. She was a kind and thoughtful girl with an enthusiasm for life. Emily would have been a brilliant teacher, wife and mummy, but sadly was denied these chances to shine.

We miss Emily so very much, the pain is immeasurable, but Emily would want us to live our lives in her memory and achieve things for ourselves and others. And so I ask, teenagers: please get the MenACWY vaccination to protect yourselves against this awful disease.

Parents: if your son or daughter is eligible for the vaccine, if you only do one thing whilst they’re at home for the Christmas holidays, please encourage them to make an appointment to get the vaccine. It could save them their life and you the heart break our family continues to suffer.

Matt Fox fell ill with meningococcal septicaemia in February 2010 at the age of 20. He said:

Little did I know that 2010 would be a year that would change my life forever. In February, I became ill with meningitis caused by a meningococcal infection. I had been at university for just two months when I fell ill one weekend when I was home to visit my family.

Over the next month I went through a lot. I lost the ability to walk for a while. I also lost most of the fingers on my right hand and the fingertips of my left hand.

I had to delay my study plans and take time out to recover and also to have multiple surgeries to deal with complications from the illness.

While having meningococcal disease hasn’t fazed me and I have achieved my dream of becoming a professional photographer, I would strongly encourage students to get vaccinated against MenACWY. One vaccination could save you a lot of pain and inconvenience, and more importantly your life.

Ends

Background information

  1. Public Health England exists to protect and improve the nation’s health and wellbeing, and reduce health inequalities. It does this through world-class science, knowledge and intelligence, advocacy, partnerships and the delivery of specialist public health services. PHE is an operationally autonomous executive agency of the Department of Health. Twitter: @PHE_uk, Facebook: www.facebook.com/PublicHealthEngland.

  2. The MenACWY programme was announced in June by public health minister Jane Ellison. A second MenB vaccination programme announced at the same time and targeted at young children began on 1 September.

  3. The MenACWY vaccination programme vaccine uptake report will be available in spring 2016.

  4. Annual figures for meningococcal disease cases in England and Wales are available on Public Health England’s website.

  5. This leaflet for students explains the importance of having the MenACWY vaccine.

PHE Press Office, infections

61 Colindale Avenue
London
NW9 5EQ

Published 16 December 2015