A life-saver for school leavers

 Helen Donovan 19 Jun 2017

Improved awareness of the MenACWY vaccine programme to prevent meningococcal disease is urgently needed, says Helen Donovan.

Over the last few years in the UK there has been a rapid increase in the W strain of meningococcal disease. Meningococcal infection is life threatening and often develops suddenly. It can cause meningitis or septicaemia, which can kill or leave people with significant life changing disabilities such as paralysis, limb amputations, brain damage and deafness.

The W strain is not only particularly severe with a high death rate, but can also be harder to diagnose as symptoms may include diarrhoea and vomiting rather than the “classic” symptoms of high fever, severe headache, neck stiffness, dislike of lights, rash etc; see here for more information.

People can carry the meningococcal bacteria in their noses and throats without actually contracting the disease themselves, but they can pass it onto others. Teenagers and young adults are more likely to be carriers of the bacteria, which can spread easily from person to person. As the early symptoms are often like those of flu, it can be difficult to make a correct diagnosis quickly and a person can become severely ill before it is recognised. Vaccination is the only effective way to prevent the devastation caused by this disease.

In response to the rise in these infections, in 2015 the school based vaccination programme changed to include the MenACWY vaccine, which protects against four strains of the disease, in place of the MenC vaccine, which covers one. The vaccine is routinely given to teenagers alongside the booster of diphtheria, tetanus and polio vaccines, normally in year 9. If people miss this they can still receive the vaccine up until the age of 25.

It is particularly important to target all young people who are leaving school this summer. Most people between the ages of 17 and 20 are eligible for the MenACWY vaccine from their GP if they haven’t already had it. Use the Meningitis Research Foundation eligibility checker to see who qualifies for the vaccine and see here for details of the full programme as well as leaflets and posters to help raise the importance of the vaccine and the disease.

Despite the severity of this disease the uptake of MenACWY vaccine in school leavers is worryingly low; for the first and second years of the programme the uptake has not exceeded 39%, leaving many young people at risk of this potentially devastating infection.

With all the excitement associated with leaving home and going to university, vaccination is unlikely to be top of young peoples’ to do list but it could literally be a life saver. These patients' stories from the Meningitis Research Foundation highlights just how vital it is to make sure all young people get this vaccine, and it’s essential for health care staff and teachers in schools and universities to promote its importance.

There is still time to make sure the next cohort of first-year students is protected. As they finish their exams and head off to university in a few months, GP practices should consider actively calling them now to make sure they have had the vaccine. This also provides an important opportunity to offer other health promotion advice and to check all their other vaccines, including two doses of MMR, are up to date.

Higher education institutions can also use the opportunities of providing pre-course information and freshers’ week events to remind young people to have the vaccine, preferably before they start university, but also about how to go about registering with a GP and getting the vaccine if necessary once they have started; see here for further advice and guidance for universities.

Helen Donovan

Helen Donovan

RCN Professional Lead for Public Health


Helen has wide nursing experience working within the NHS and in local authority public health teams, as well as in health protection. She has a special interest in immunisation.

Page last updated - 05/09/2018