As school-leaving students contemplate their future following exam results this week, a major new campaign has just been launched to ensure they receive a newly available vaccine against four strains of potentially lethal meningitis.
The Public Health Agency (PHA) is encouraging all school leavers and first-time university students to get the new meningococcal vaccine, after it was approved for use from this month on.
A new immunisation roll-out will see everyone born between 2 July 1996 and 1 July 1997, along with first time university students up to the age of 25, being offered the ‘Men ACWY’ vaccine via their GP.
There are also plans to expand this out to all 14-18 year-olds through a school immunisation programme over the next few years.
Speaking about the new vaccine, Dr Lucy Jessop, Consultant in Health Protection with the PHA, told the Journal:
“There’s 12 different meningococcal strains in total, four of these are covered by ‘ACWY’ vaccine.
“In particular the C strain is something we have vaccinated against for quite a long time. At the moment ‘W’ is the strain we are particularly concerned about, but these four particular strains are all pretty nasty.”
Dr Jessop said the new vaccine was approved after the UK’s Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation back in February met to look at the rates of particularly the ‘W’ strain of bacterial meningitis, which have been growing in England and Wales particularly over recent years.
Speaking about the rapid devastation bacterial meningitis can lead to, Dr Jessop said:
“The symptoms can all come on extremely rapidly.
“Some people can feel a little bit fluey, some people can become very, very ill very quickly. People need to be aware that the vaccine doesn’t protect against every strain, only the more common strains.
“It is really important people are aware of the symptoms and seek medical help straight away if they suspect meningitis.
“Teenagers tend to carry the bacteria in the backs of their noses and throats. Particularly in the first term of the first year of university there are a lots of people with different strains coming together with different strains and that is why we are encouraging university freshers to become vaccinated.”
Dr Jessop also warned that the meningococcal strains can be deadly in around 5% of cases among younger people struck down with it and 25% of cases involving older people.
Other life-changing side effects and “nasty complications” of meningococcal meningitis can include having arms and legs amputated, hearing impairment and memory loss.
Welcoming the roll-out of the vaccine, Health Minister Simon Hamilton said: “This vaccination helps protect against four different causes of meningitis and septicaemia – meningococcal A, C, W and Y diseases.
“We are ensuring it is made available in Northern Ireland now, despite the extremely challenging financial position.
“It is really important to have it before you start university, if possible, and if not, to have it in the first week of term.
“Even if you have recently had the MenC vaccine, for example in school, you should still get the Men ACWY vaccine. It will increase your protection against Men C and provide protection against the three other meningococcal groups.”
For more information on the MenACWY vaccination programme visit www.publichealth.hscni.net/publications/are-you-aged-14%E2%80%9318-years-old-protect-yourself-against-meningitis-and-septicaemia.