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Increased risk of deadly meningitis over the festive period

08 Dec 2017
Increased risk of deadly meningitis over the festive period
  • Cases of meningitis and septicaemia are expected to rise over the winter months and Christmas is often peak season for the disease
  • University students most commonly ‘carry’ the  meningococcal bacteria – around one in four of them
  • MRF urges any unvaccinated first year university students to get their free MenACWY vaccine so that they don’t bring meningitis home for Christmas

Meningitis Research Foundation (MRF) is warning that cases of meningitis and septicaemia are expected to rise over the winter period. First year university students are one of the groups at highest risk as they are a group most likely to ‘carry’ the meningococcal bacteria. Even if they don’t become ill they can carry the bacteria home from university at Christmas and spread it to other family members.

On average there are over three times as many cases of the most common cause of bacterial meningitis (meningococcal) in January compared with September.

While babies and young children are most at-risk of meningitis and septicaemia, teenagers and young adults are the next most at-risk group.

The meningococcal bacteria that can cause deadly meningitis and septicaemia are most commonly found living harmlessly in the nose and throats of teenagers and young adults and they can be spread to others. The vast majority of people who come into contact with the bacteria do not become unwell or develop any symptoms but occasionally the bacteria invade the body and cause serious illness.

Christmas is the peak season for meningitis. This is thought to be due to the bacteria being able to invade the body more easily via the nose and throat at this time of year due to co-infection with flu virus, and because the bacteria can spread more rapidly when people spend longer periods indoors in close proximity.

Research funded by MRF showed that meningococcal bacteria carried in the noses and throats of university students increases rapidly during the first few months of term. Among students living in catered halls of residence, carriage rates had almost tripled by December compared to the first week of term.

The MenACWY vaccination programme was introduced in the UK for teenagers and first year university students in 2015 following a rapid rise in a new and particularly deadly type of meningitis - meningococcal W meningitis and septicaemia (MenW) - identified by MRF’s Meningococcal Genome Library.

MRF is urging all first year university students to get their MenACWY vaccine if they have not already had it, so that they don’t bring meningitis home for Christmas.

Most 14 – 20 year olds are also eligible for this free life-saving vaccine whether they are attending university or not. It’s easy for anyone to find out if they are eligible and how they can get the vaccine at: www.meningitis.org/oneshot.

Meningitis and septicaemia are deadly diseases that strike without warning. One in ten people affected will die and a third of survivors will be left with after-effects, some as serious as brain damage, amputations, blindness or hearing loss.

Rapid identification and treatment of meningitis and septicaemia provides the best chance of survival. However it can often be missed because in the early stages the symptoms resemble many other less serious illnesses, such as flu.

Early symptoms are usually fever, vomiting, headache and feeling unwell. Limb pain, pale skin, and cold hands and feet often appear earlier than the rash, neck stiffness, dislike of bright lights and confusion. Someone unwell with meningitis or septicaemia will become rapidly worse.

“Sadly we see even more families affected by meningitis and septicaemia during winter. Christmas should be a happy occasion for families but it’s the peak season for the disease. Over the festive period it’s more important than ever for families to be vigilant and know the symptoms." - Vinny Smith, Chief Executive, MRF

Vinny Smith, Chief Executive of MRF said, “Sadly we see even more families affected by meningitis and septicaemia during winter. Christmas should be a happy occasion for families but it’s the peak season for the disease. Over the festive period it’s more important than ever for families to be vigilant and know the symptoms.

“The new MenW strain is more deadly than other strains and the symptoms don’t always present in the normal way. With the threat to university students peaking in December, any unvaccinated first year students should get their free MenACWY vaccine urgently to protect themselves from four types of meningitis and septicaemia – Men A, C, W and Y. This will not only protect them but will also help protect their family and friends by stopping the bacteria from spreading.”

MRF’s membership and support team are there for anyone affected by these dreadful diseases to provide support through our helpline, community visits and our befriending service.

The symptoms of meningitis
The symptoms of meningitis
Meningitis and septicaemia can kill in hours - know the symptoms.
Media contact
Holly Edwards - Communications Manager
Tel: 07875 498 047
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