“Fresher” students are being urged to get vaccinated to protect themselves against meningitis before starting university.
Leading nurses have called on soon-to-be university students to get the vaccine for group W meningococcal disease (Men W).
Cases of meningitis and blood poisoning caused by a highly virulent strain of Men W bacteria rapidly increased from 22 cases in England in 2009/10 to 210 in 2015/16.
As a result, health officials added the Men ACWY immunisation to the national immunisation programme in August 2015.
Older teenagers and university students are encouraged to get the Men ACWY vaccine to protect themselves against the deadly bacteria.
This group is thought to be at a higher risk of infection because they mix closely with lots of new people – some of whom may unknowingly carry the meningococcal bacteria at the back of their noses and throats.
The Royal College of Nursing (RCN) said y oung people who find out they have a place at university this week have only two weeks to get vaccinated in order to be immune from meningitis in time for the start of term.
The RCN said new students should make an appointment this month to give time for immunity to build before Freshers’ Week.
It warned that MenW can be harder to spot due to symptoms less traditionally associated with meningitis, including diarrhoea and vomiting.
A young woman who had to have both legs amputated below the knee after contracting MenW has backed the call.
Charlotte Hannibal, 21, from Nottingham, was 18 when she became ill with MenW septicaemia in February 2015, in her first year at Nottingham Trent University studying business.
She had to have both legs amputated below the knee, lost most of her left hand, and the finger tips on her right hand.
“I left one of my lectures early with a sore throat, headache and tiredness; similar to having a bad hangover,” said Ms Hannibal, who has been working with the charity Meningitis Research Foundation to raise awareness of the MenACWY vaccine since she survived the disease.
“But 48 hours after my first symptoms, I was in hospital and doctors realised my body was shutting down. I spent three months in hospital.
“In that time, I lost part of my hearing, dealt with kidney failure, dialysis, and had both my legs amputated below the knee, along with all my fingers from my left hand.
“I’m making progress every day now, but I’m encouraging everyone starting university this year to get vaccinated so they don’t have to go through what I have.”
The RCN has also called on health leaders to launch an urgent targeted campaign on social media platforms to reach school leavers.
Helen Donovan, public health lead at the RCN, said: ” A targeted social media campaign could save lives.
“The low take-up is a serious concern as people starting university are particularly at risk. Letters are not enough – it’s vital we communicate with young people using platforms they are likely to use.
“Meningitis can be fatal, and can leave those who survive with life-changing disabilities. Vaccination is quick, easy and free, and offers protection against most strains of the disease, but reaching young people is not easy.
“Many will have been away over the summer travelling or working before university. But the risk is real and getting vaccinated saves lives.
“We are urging people to contact their surgeries now and book an appointment with the practice nurse.”
Public Health England said it has already launched this year’s campaign to encourage uptake for the vaccine, including messages across Facebook, Instagram and other social media.
Dr Mary Ramsay, head of immunisation at Public Health England, said: ” The Men ACWY vaccination programme will save lives and prevent lifelong and devastating disability.
“We have seen a rapid increase in Men W cases across England in recent years and vaccination is the most effective way of protecting against infection.
“Young people are particularly at risk from the Men W strain. Being in confined environments with close contact, such as university halls or lecture theatres, increases the chances of infection if unprotected.
“We urge anyone who is eligible to get vaccinated as soon as possible. Remain vigilant and seek urgent medical help if you think someone may be showing signs of infection.”