A testing expert fears the perfect storm of infections during September as students start at schools, colleges and universities.
School closures during the Covid-19 lockdowns mean that one in eight students starting university this year are unprotected against meningitis.
Dr Avinash Hari Narayanan, Clinical Lead at London Medical Laboratory, explained: “The MenACWY vaccine usually protects against four strains of the meningococcal bacteria – A, C, W and Y – that cause meningitis and bloodstream infections (septicaemia). It’s normally offered to all pupils aged 13–15 years old alongside the ‘teenage booster’ jab, which is given to increase protection against tetanus, diphtheria and polio.
“However, many students who were aged around 15 in 2020 may have missed these key jabs because of Covid school closures. This age group is now starting university. The latest MenACWY coverage data shows the vaccination rate has now fallen to 79.6 per cent.
“There is also concern some students may have missed their MMR vaccine – protecting against measles, mumps, and rubella – and their HPV vaccine – protecting against human papilloma virus-related cancers.”
Freshers’ flu confusion
Dr Narayanan is also concerned that students won’t know the difference between ‘freshers’ flu’ symptoms and more serious illnesses at the start of term.
“It’s particularly concerning, as cases of so-called ‘freshers’ flu’ – usually caused by assorted bugs that spread quickly through the student population in the first weeks of term – can be confused with symptoms of meningitis in its early stages. Like freshers’ flu, meningitis is initially difficult to distinguish from a bad hangover or common, milder illnesses. This can also be the case with the early stages of measles or mumps,” he said.
The symptoms of meningitis and septicaemia are:
- A blotchy rash that doesn’t fade when a glass is rolled over it
- Aching muscles and joints
- A stiff neck
- Sensitivity and intolerance to light.
The MenW strain can also cause vomiting and diarrhoea in teenagers and young adults.
“With the exception of the rash,” said Dr Narayanan, “the concern is that all of these symptoms may be mistaken initially for freshers’ flu and/or the weeklong hangover that is often considered a rite of passage for new students. Urgent antibiotic treatment and hospitalisation is critical as soon as meningitis is diagnosed.”
He added: “For students and parents concerned about the potential increase in meningitis cases, it’s important to note that anyone born on or after 1 September 1996 who was eligible but missed their teenage MenACWY vaccine can still have the jab up to their 25th birthday.”
He also noted that this jab doesn’t protect against all strains, like MenB which is common among students, so knowing the symptoms is key.