Health experts and meningitis charities are urging older teenagers to make sure they are protected against meningitis and other diseases after figures showed that around 1 in 8 new students had not been vaccinated against strains of meningitis A, C, W, and Y.
The plea came as it was revealed that 13% of students in England heading to university and college for the first time had missed their MenACWY vaccine in school, leaving them unprotected and at risk of the potentially fatal disease, which could cause long term disability, serious health complications, and be life-threatening, the UK Health Security Agency (UKSHA) warned.
Dr Shamez Ladhani, consultant epidemiologist at the Agency, pointed out that every year new and returning students get "seriously ill, with some tragically dying, from what are preventable diseases".
He said: "With large numbers of students coming together from around the country and overseas for the first time, and closely mixing, infection can spread easily."
MenACWY Vaccine Coverage Falling
The NHS schools MenACWY immunisation programme is offered to all pupils in years 9 and 10, but anyone who had missed out could still get vaccinated until their 25th birthday.
UKHSA vaccine coverage for year 10 in 2019-2020 was 87%, which meant that around one in eight new students going to college and university this year remained unprotected against these four strains of meningococcal bacteria.
The Agency highlighted concern that the latest 2021-2022 MenACWY coverage data showed the vaccination rate had fallen even further, to 79.6%. This meant that in a few years' time the figure of those unprotected when they started college or university would "rise to around one in five" if they didn't catch-up with their vaccinations.
Figures for 2021-2022 revealed that coverage in year 10 students was highest in Hampshire, Isle of White, and Thames Valley (86.6%) and lowest in South West South (69.6%). With regards to local authorities, coverage ranged from 48.2% in Hammersmith and Fulham, to 100% in Hertfordshire and West Berkshire.
Meningitis Now chief executive, Dr Tom Nutt, insisted that "more needs to be done".
He reinforced how vaccination was the best way to protect against the "devastation" that meningitis could cause and highlighted that the NHS's vaccination programme had resulted in a "steady drop" in the number of cases of the disease.
However, the charity estimated that up to half a million young people currently aged between 18 to 24 years old may have missed their MenACWY vaccine at school.
Vaccination Should Top the 'To Do' List
The UKSHA called on students to get up to date with MenACWY, MMR, and HPV vaccinations, before starting university or college. "We are urging all students to ensure they are up to date with all free routine NHS vaccines and to know the signs and symptoms of meningitis and septicaemia as it could help save a life," it said.
Dr Ladhani said that in a student's preparation for college or university, ensuring they are protected against these infections "should be top of your list of urgent things to do before starting college or university."
Claire Wright, head of insights and policy at Meningitis Research Foundation, pointed out that by taking up the MenACWY vaccine, "students are not only protecting themselves but also protecting others", by stopping the bacteria from being passed on.
She emphasised how it was still important for young people to be aware of the signs and symptoms of meningitis because the MenACWY vaccine "did not protect against MenB", which is the most common cause of life-threatening meningitis amongst this age group.
Dr Nutt called on everyone to take advantage of the MenACWY vaccination when it was offered, and for individuals to check their vaccination status with their GP.