The message comes as thousands of young people prepare to leave home for university for the first time.
With as many as half a million students setting up home, often in halls of residence, in the coming months, many universities will be expecting the usual health issues such as fresher’s flu and hangovers to be complicated by COVID-19 this year, and all will be taking measures to help prevent it.
“But what about meningitis?” asks Dr Tom Nutt, CEO at Meningitis Now.
“The harsh reality is that some students will contract meningitis whilst at Uni this coming autumn and how easy will it be to put a headache and feeling unwell down to Covid-19 and self-isolate? And whilst this is the correct response for Covid-19, it could be disastrous if the illness is meningitis. When meningitis strikes it does so quickly and any delay in diagnosis or treatment can cost lives.
“Our message to parents as they battle with the uncertainties of university starting dates, online tutorials, and living arrangements, is to be certain about meningitis and to ensure that their children are aware of the signs and symptoms of meningitis. If a student is feeling unwell, they shouldn’t simply assume it's COVID-19 or a hangover, and that they should seek medical help immediately by calling NHS 111 or their GP.”
Quick thinking saved his life
Nineteen-year-old Ben, a student at the University of Portsmouth knows how quickly meningitis can strike having contracted meningococcal B in November 2019. Keen to pursue a career as a Naval Officer, Ben was just one month into college when he became unwell, disorientated, and confused. He was told that it was a hangover. Ben, who had been given the MenACWY vaccine, had contracted MenB - a strain of the disease he was not vaccinated against. The quick thinking and speedy action of his flatmates saved his life.
“Being told that our son was the sickest patient in the hospital, will live with me forever,” says Ben’s mother, Arlene de Souza.
“The outcome for Ben could have been very different if he and his mates had also been dealing with the added confusion of Covid-19. Ben has been lucky.”
Ben has now recovered fully and intends to restart his university studies this autumn.
Perfect breeding ground for diseases
The student environment is the perfect breeding ground for diseases such as meningitis, as large groups of people start to cohabit and mix for the first time - some of whom will unknowingly be carrying the bacteria that causes this disease. This is further exacerbated by the fact that up to a quarter of 15 to 24-year-olds carry meningococcal bacteria in the back of their throats, compared to one in 10 of the general population.
Whilst many students going to university or college this year are likely to have been protected against MenACWY, having received the vaccine at school, up to half a million people aged up to the age of 25 may have missed this important jab, and very few will have been vaccinated against MenB - a strain that causes most cases of bacterial meningitis in the UK.