Stacey Dooley investigates... risk of meningitis in young people
Stacey Dooley interviews a young survivor of meningococcal disease to raise awareness of new MenACWY vaccination programme.
This September, as thousands of school leavers prepare for the next stage of their lives, a free vaccination, MenACWY, is being offered for the first time to protect them from contracting potentially fatal meningococcal disease, which can cause meningitis (inflammation of the brain) and septicaemia (blood poisoning).
To help raise awareness of the new vaccination, TV presenter and investigative reporter Stacey Dooley met with a young survivor of meningococcal disease, Amy Davies, to understand the devastating impact the disease can have.
Amy contracted meningitis and septicaemia aged just 18. At the time, Amy and her family were told she had only a 10% chance of survival and she was put in an induced coma for over 2 weeks.
During this time her family watched her legs and arms turn black as septicaemia took hold of her body. After a period in intensive care and a rehabilitation unit, Amy underwent many operations to remove her toes and part of her foot and, the following year, she needed to have her lower left leg amputated.
The interview, which has been captured in a new short film to raise awareness about meningitis and septicaemia, sees Amy and Stacey encourage new university students and 18 year olds to take up the offer of the free MenACWY vaccination, when contacted by their doctor, as part of their essential pre-university preparation.
This new vaccination programme is being introduced in response to a rapidly growing increase in cases of a highly aggressive form of meningococcal disease caused by group W meningococcal bacteria, or MenW. MenW cases have been increasing since 2008 with cases doubling year on year in recent years. In 2014 there were 117 cases diagnosed in England compared to only 16 in 2008.
Previously MenW cases were diagnosed mainly in older adults, but with the emergence of the hypervirulent strain, MenW cases have occurred across all age groups and, for the first time in more than a decade, we have seen deaths due to MenW in teenagers and young children.
New university students are at a high risk of contracting the disease from mixing closely with lots of new people, as up to 25% may unknowingly carry the meningococcal bacteria in their nose or throat, without suffering any illness themselves.
The vaccine is being offered to all 18 year olds, regardless of their future plans of attending higher education.
The MenACWY vaccine not only protects against diseases that cause meningitis and septicaemia, but also from carrying and passing on the meningococcal bacteria to others.
Survivors can often have their lives devastated as a result of long-term effects, such as deafness, brain damage, learning difficulties, seizures, difficulties with physical activities and, when septicaemia is involved, loss of limbs, like Amy.
Students and 18 year olds are also being warned to be aware of symptoms of meningitis and septicaemia, which can be difficult to recognise in the early stages. The disease progresses rapidly, so it’s important to seek urgent medical attention if ever there is any concern. First symptoms can be similar to those of flu or a hangover, and can include:
- stiff neck
- sensitivity to light
- muscle and leg pain
These symptoms often appear earlier than any rash caused by septicaemia.
Meningitis survivor Amy Davies, a supporter of Meningitis Research Foundation, says:
Meningococcal disease is a life-changing disease that I never thought could affect me. I was a normal 18 year old, but the moment I contracted the disease my life was turned upside down.
It is a terrible disease that has impacted my whole life, particularly as I’ve had to adjust to having my lower left leg amputated, and it robbed me of some important years of my youth, when I should have been out having fun, rather than under going months of incredibly traumatic treatment.
Media medic Dr Radha, who is supporting the campaign and also appears in the film, comments:
Starting university, or a new phase of life, is an incredibly exciting time, and so young people will have many plans and things to distract them from thinking about their health. They might not be aware, but those off to university are at a particularly high risk of contracting meningococcal disease due to meeting and mixing with lots of new people, and so this vaccination is one health decision that I would not want those eligible to put off.
The effects of meningitis and septicaemia can be truly devastating and sometimes even fatal, and can ruin what should be the most exciting years of their lives.
Dr Mary Ramsay, Head of Immunisation at Public Health England said:
We’re encouraging all eligible teenagers to take-up the offer of vaccination when they are contacted by their GP.
If you’re planning to go to university or college, you should be vaccinated before the start of the academic term or before leaving home for university or college (ideally 2 weeks in advance). Please make an appointment with your GP as soon as possible when the vaccine is offered.
First time university entrants from 19 to 24 years of age inclusive should also contact their GP for the vaccination.
Meningitis can be deadly and survivors are often left with severe disabilities as a result of this terrible disease.
This vaccine will save lives and prevent permanent disability.
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.
Teenagers in England aged 17 and 18 (born between 01 September 1996 and 31 August 1997) are eligible for vaccination regardless of their future plans.
Case studies available on request.
In March 2015, the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation (JCVI) reviewed the outbreak in detail and concluded that this increase was likely to continue in future years unless action is taken, and advised that 14 to 18 year-olds should be immunised against meningococcal group W (MenW). The vaccination programme was announced in June.
Further information on meningitis is available on NHS Choices.
Sue Davie, Chief Executive of Meningitis Now, said:
As a charity dealing with the consequences of the disease on a daily basis I would plead directly to parents to make sure that their children gets the Men ACWY vaccination. We are particularly concerned with those going to university or college in the autumn as they are at a higher risk from what has been called ‘freshers’ flu’.
It is critical that young people are not complacent about the disease and they take the necessary steps to protect themselves, stay vigilant and seek urgent medical help if they suspect it.
This is a cruel disease, it does not discriminate and could significantly alter the future outlook for young people if they are not protected or meningitis aware.
Chris Head, Chief Executive of the Meningitis Research Foundation Chief Executive, said:
The Meningitis Research Foundation is delighted that the government has moved so quickly to halt the rise of MenW ST-11 with this MenACWY vaccination programme for 14 to 24 year olds.
The rise in Men W ST-11 disease is particularly worrying as it causes more severe illness and a higher death rate than other strains.
We urge all who are eligible to make sure they get MenACWY vaccine.
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.
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 will begin on 1 September.
There are 4 parts to the upcoming MenACWY campaign:
- an urgent catch-up campaign starting in August 2015 for current school year 13 age adolescents through general practice using a call and recall system
- a catch-up campaign for current school year 10 students through schools from January 2016
- adding MenACWY vaccine to the routine adolescent schools programme (school year 9 or 10) from Autumn 2015, as a direct replacement for the MenC vaccination
- adding MenACWY vaccine to the existing time-limited ‘freshers’ programme (ie for older first time university entrants who have not already received MenACWY through school year 13) that will be offered through general practice, as a direct replacement of the MenC vaccination
Due to demand for the vaccine, ordering may need to be halted at some points during the campaign. In this situation, healthcare professionals and providers will be kept informed through the ImmForm vaccine ordering website and PHE’s Vaccine Update newsletter.
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