By Lauren Martin
I first encountered the Meningitis ACWY vaccine through an NHS public health advertisement around two weeks prior to my return to university. I noticed that this began to repeatedly appear on my Facebook timeline with a simple message proclaiming ‘Freshers are at high risk from Meningitis and Septicaemia. Help protect your friends’. Curiosity sparked, I took to Google and researched the ACWY vaccination scheme further. In part, I was driven by surprise that I had not previously heard of it, particularly as Meningitis is such a concern for young people. And, from talking to friends, it seems I’m not alone. Regardless, whether Facebook had somehow picked up on my slightly hypochondriacal tendencies, or whether all students are now being targeted on social media, the post had the desired effect and I have booked in to receive the Meningitis ACWY vaccine in a few days’ time.
But what actually is the ACWY vaccine – and why is it so important for young people?
Vaccinations of 14-18 year olds and all new university entrants began in August 2015 as a direct replacement of the Meningitis C vaccine. This occurred in response to a 431% increase in the number of (previously very rare) Meningitis W cases since 2009 – an increase that has disproportionately affected young people. In school and at university, students are in very close contact with one another and thus are more exposed to processes that increase the risk of the virus spreading, such as coughing, sneezing and kissing. In more common strains of Meningitis, such as B and C, 1 in 10 cases are symptomless, and these individuals carry the Meningococcal bacteria harmlessly in their nose and throat. At the other extreme, 1 in 10 cases are fatal, and 1 in 4 survivors are left with long-term effects, including amputations and deafness. The death rate of Meningitis W is even higher than this, and therefore preventative measures are imperative. The two ACWY vaccines that are currently used are Nimenrix and Menveo, both developed by GSK and later acquired by Pfizer. They are very similar in terms of effectiveness and side effects, which are generally minor and include redness, itching, swelling, nausea, headaches and fatigue.
One of the reasons that Meningitis is so dangerous is the rapidity with which it develops. The early warning signs to watch out for are fever, cold hands and feet, nausea and vomiting, severe headaches, confusion, muscle pain, drowsiness and lethargy, a stiff neck, aversion to bright lights and a red, blotchy rash that doesn’t disappear when a glass is pressed against it. The glass test has become one of the most well-known methods of checking for Meningitis, but waiting for a rash to appear after the onset of other symptoms can often mean a worse prognosis by the time the individual arrives in hospital – especially as sometimes a rash does not appear at all. It is therefore very important to act fast if any of these signs are present. If you are unsure, one of the quickest ways to check is to phone 111, where NHS staff can provide advice. Otherwise, it is important to head to hospital to get checked out if you think you or someone else may have Meningitis. It’s always better to be safe than sorry, as Meningitis can be tackled with simple antibiotics and, if caught early, is much less likely to be life-threatening. As the ACWY vaccine addresses four groups of Meningitis, it is a very important development for young people, as it can help to prevent these emergency situations from occurring.
As the more observant among you may have noticed, the ACWY vaccine is only being offered to secondary school students and freshers. This means that current first and second years will have likely been offered the vaccine free on the NHS, as the first few months of university are when young people are most susceptible to Meningitis. However, anyone who started university prior to 2015 (shout out to my fellow third and fourth years) is also susceptible to all strains of Meningitis, but will have most likely only received the Meningitis C vaccine. At some universities, this is a requirement before beginning your degree, while at others it is optional and thus some students may have not had a Meningitis vaccine at all. While the Meningitis C vaccine is, as the name suggests, highly beneficial in preventing the C strain, this has actually become a much lower threat in recent years (thanks to the vaccination scheme) and does not protect against A, B, W or Y strains. The older you are, the lower your risk – but everyone at university is still at a higher risk than the general population.
I would argue, then, that although the NHS might not have budgeted for older years to be included in the vaccination drive, it is worth talking to your GP about paying for the vaccine yourself – particularly if you are immunocompromised or have not previously received the Meningitis C vaccine. One of the only downsides, in addition to the cost and minor side effects incurred, is that the ACWY vaccine doesn’t cover Meningitis B, for which a viable vaccine called Bexsero was developed in 2013. As young children are the most at risk for this strain, it was incorporated into the childhood vaccination programme in 2015, but teenagers (who are also at higher risk) are not currently offered it.
On the other hand, ACWY covers four of the Meningitis groups and is, in my opinion, a far better option than no Meningitis vaccinations at all. Even if you decide not to get the vaccine yourself, part of the NHS’ advertisement is the tagline ‘Tag someone, message someone, tell someone – just make sure your friends know why getting the Men ACWY vaccine is important’. So if you have younger siblings or friends starting university, it might be worth spreading the word and reminding them to get vaccinated – then their main health concerns can be hangovers and Freshers’ flu, rather than something much more sinister.
By Lauren Martin
Lauren is a final year Human Scientist at St Hugh’s College, Oxford who is hoping to pursue a career in science communications after graduating.