Press release

Returning students urged to get vaccinated against deadly infections

Students going back to university after Christmas urged to get vaccinated against meningitis and septicaemia.

Student being vaccinated

Public Health England (PHE) is reminding unvaccinated first year students to get immunised now against meningococcal disease, as it issues updated advice to universities on reducing the spread of this deadly infection.

The appeal comes after the latest PHE figures showed that less than a third (29.5%) of all young people leaving school last summer had been immunised with the MenACWY vaccine by the end of October. PHE introduced the vaccination programme in 2015 to tackle a sharp increase in a particularly virulent strain of meningococcal W disease (MenW) that poses a high risk for new students.

Working with Universities UK and the leading meningitis charities, PHE has now updated its guidance to higher education institutions to help them raise awareness among students of the MenACWY vaccination, and the signs and symptoms of the disease.

This update is timely because of the year-on-year increase in cases of MenW across all age groups - from 22 cases in 2009 and 2010 to 210 cases in 2015 and 2016. As cases have increased, the total number of related deaths has also risen, with 1 in 8 people with MenW disease dying from the infection.

New students, especially freshers, are at a higher risk of meningococcal disease. They mix closely with large numbers of new people, some of whom will unknowingly be carrying the bacteria, without any signs or symptoms, enabling it to spread. Last autumn PHE appealed to new students to get vaccinated before starting university or, failing that, soon after arrival. Second year students who missed their vaccination last year are also eligible for immunisation.

The new guidance for universities recommends:

  • sending out important information and advice in joining packs to new students
  • encouraging them to register with their GP and get their MenACWY vaccine as soon as possible, if not already vaccinated
  • putting a plan in place for dealing with cases and outbreaks
  • raising awareness about meningococcal disease among freshers, other students and staff every autumn

The guidance also highlights one example of best practice from Nottingham University last year where students were offered vaccination at their freshers fair.

Universities are encouraged to advise students to make sure they tell someone if they feel unwell, and to keep an eye on friends who are ill. Students are also urged to seek medical advice immediately if someone has concerning symptoms, or their condition appears to be getting worse. Meningococcal disease can develop suddenly, usually as meningitis or septicaemia. Early symptoms include severe diarrhoea and vomiting, headaches, muscle pain, fever, and cold hands and feet. It can kill, or leave people with life-changing disabilities or health problems, like hearing loss, brain damage or the loss of a limb.

The vaccine, which also provides protection against the MenA, MenC and MenY strains, not only protects those vaccinated, but it will help control the spread of the disease in the wider population.

Dr Mary Ramsay, Head of Immunisation at PHE, said:

Many students will have been vaccinated before they left home for university and some will have got vaccinated by their new GP last term. However, for those who haven’t, it is not too late. First year students remain at significantly greater risk than most young people from this deadly disease. So I would strongly urge them to go and see their GP to get vaccinated – it could save their life.

Nicola Dandridge, Chief Executive of Universities UK, said:

There has been an increase in MenW cases among young people and we must do all we can to ensure students are aware of the risks. Many universities have already taken measures to address the issue, with good results. Nottingham University found that 31% of their students were vaccinated before arrival at university, but following a campus-based vaccination campaign, this rose to 71%. The vaccination process is straightforward and universities up and down the country are making sure that it is as easy as possible for students to get vaccinated.


  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. Follow us on Twitter: @PHE_uk and Facebook:
  2. For interview bids contact Anushka Naidoo at or 020 8327 7004.
  3. Spokespeople: Dr Mary Ramsay, Head of Immunisation at PHE and Dr Shamez Ladhani, Consultant in Immunisation at PHE. 4.There is further guidance on the PHE website.
  4. For case studies, contact Meningitis Now or the Meningitis Research Foundation.
  5. In August 2016, GPs wrote to all eligible 17 and 18 year olds (those in school year 13, born between 1 September 1997 and 31 August 1998). Anyone in this age group is advised to get the vaccination, but particularly those starting university. Anyone who missed getting vaccinated last year (19 year olds born between 1 September 1996 and 31 August 1997) is also eligible. PHE is also advising anyone aged up to 25 who is starting university to get vaccinated by their GP.
  6. PHE first appealed to new students to get vaccinated on 16 August 2016 and renewed the call at the start of the autumn term.
  7. Uptake of the vaccine in eligible teenagers in last year’s programme was 36.6% by the end of July 2016. This data and this year’s figures are published in PHE’s Health Protection Weekly Report on 16 December 2016 and 25 November 2016.
  8. Data on 2009 and 2010 cases was published in the journal Clinical Infectious Diseases and 2015 and 2016 data was published in PHE’s Meningococcal disease: laboratory confirmed cases in England.
  9. Data on deaths was published in Eurosurveillance, volume 20, Issue 28, 16 July 2015.
  10. There is further information about the MenACWY vaccination on the NHS Choices website.

PHE press office

Published 11 January 2017