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Written on 16th August 2022 by Susan Brown

As A-level results day approaches, Meningitis Now’s latest awareness campaign is urging new university students to learn about meningitis and ‘look out for your mates’. The leading meningitis charity is raising awareness about how important it can be for students to recognise the signs of meningitis to look out for fellow students and act quickly if meningitis is suspected.

The awareness campaign is timed to coincide with A-level results day which will lead to thousands of students preparing for university or other forms of higher education. The charity believes that post-COVID social freedoms and young people’s natural desire to mix in large groups, together with many students leaving home to live in campus-based accommodation, provides an ideal opportunity for infectious diseases to spread, increasing students’ existing high risk of meningitis.

Meningitis Now advises university students who feel unwell or who are worried that a friend is unwell or acting out of character to seek urgent medical advice or go straight to hospital and get checked out, even if they are not sure if their symptoms could be serious. Every minute counts with meningitis and the unwell person’s condition can deteriorate rapidly.  Getting to hospital quickly for IV antibiotic treatment could save their own or their friend’s life. 

What is meningitis?

Meningitis is a life-threatening condition in which the protective membranes (meninges) covering the brain and spinal canal become infected. Meningitis is usually caused by viral or bacterial infections, but can also have other causes.

Bacterial meningitis must be treated urgently with antibiotics, which are usually given intravenously (IV) during admission to hospital. Meningitis develops rapidly and if untreated can cause severe injury or death within a matter of hours. With early diagnosis and timely antibiotic treatment many people make a good recovery, however,  bacterial meningitis leads to fatal injury (death) in 1 in 10 cases, and 1 in 3 survivors are left with lifelong after-effects. Survivors of meningitis can experience disability and impairments ranging from loss of limbs and amputation or severe brain injury to deafness, learning difficulties or ‘hidden’ problems with memory and concentration.

The key to recovery from meningitis is early recognition, swift action to seek medical help and urgent antibiotic treatment. Any delays in diagnosis or treatment of meningitis can result in death or permanent disability.

Why is it important for students to understand the risks of meningitis?

Meningitis can affect anyone of any age at any time but students are particularly at risk in their first few months of university, when living away from home for the first time. Their risk may be increased by one or more of the following factors.

  • Living closely in communal accommodation for the first time with other people from different environments or countries exposes new students suddenly to new bacteria and viruses.
  • Research has shown that 1 in 4 (25% or a quarter) of all 15 to 19-year-olds carry the bacteria which can cause meningitis in the back of their throats,  compared to 1 in 10 people generally. Carrying the bacteria does not automatically mean that a student will become unwell, but makes it more likely to be passed on to others by sneezing, coughing or intimate contact, such as kissing.
  • Students are less likely to look after their health, such as from drinking too much alcohol, poor eating habits or lack of self-care.
  • Living away from parents’ supervision means that students are also less likely to realise when they are becoming seriously ill. They are at higher risk, not only of contracting the disease, but also of their condition going unnoticed or of danger signs not being taken seriously. It can be easy to assume that the early signs of meningitis are from a cold, ‘fresher’s flu’ or a serious hangover.
  • Friends and flatmates are often equally unlikely to recognise drowsiness, lethargy, irritability or other signs of illness as a sign that urgent medical attention is needed and take action in the same way that a worried parent would.

Meningitis Now is working with universities to increase students’ awareness of meningitis and help students look after themselves and look out for their friends to reduce the risk of harm from meningitis.

Students starting university can take a few sensible steps to reduce the risk of serious injury from meningitis to themselves or their friends by:

  • learning about symptoms and signs of meningitis on the Meningitis Now website and downloading Meningitis Now’s app so that help and advice is easily to hand;
  • registering with a GP surgery or health centre on arrival at university and making sure that they know how to contact their GP;
  • looking out for themselves and each other and, if feeling unwell, letting someone else know that they are unwell, so that they can check on them, and recognise or report any worrying symptoms;
  • making sure they are up to date with their vaccinations.

Meningitis Now’s Chief Executive, Dr Tom Nutt said: “Whilst many young people will have been vaccinated against MenACWY, which protects against four strains of meningococcal meningitis, at school, we estimate that up to half a million under-25s may have missed this important vaccination. If that’s you – contact your GP and see if you can get up to date with your vaccinations. …And very few young people will have been vaccinated against MenB, which is the strain that causes the most cases of bacterial meningitis in the UK.”

What are the signs and symptoms of meningitis?

Signs of meningitis (or septicaemia/sepsis) can include one or more of the following:

  • a high temperature (fever) with cold hands and feet;
  • severe headache;
  • vomiting (being sick);
  • confusion or irritability;
  • severe muscle pain;
  • neck stiffness;
  • drowsiness or being difficult to wake;
  • photophobia (discomfort in bright light);
  • fits (seizures or convulsions);
  • pale blotchy skin;
  • spots or a rash which doesn’t fade in colour under pressure, (tested by firmly pressing the side of a glass against the skin).

The symptoms and signs can appear in any order. In most cases, not all of the signs will appear.  The classic rash often does not appear at all and when it does it may be a late sign which only appears when the disease is already life-threatening. Meningitis Now advises people not to wait for a rash to develop, but to trust their instincts if they think they are seriously unwell and seek medical help immediately.

Meningitis Now’s Chief Executive, Dr Tom Nutt said:  “Common complaints such as a hangover and Freshers’ Flu are often given as reasons for a person not feeling too well – but we are asking young people not to simply assume this is the case. A headache and fever are also common signs of meningitis, which is why it is so important that young people should learn the signs and symptoms of the disease, look out for themselves and their mates and seek medical help straight away if they feel unwell.”

Meningitis is a medical emergency. Any delays in treatment can lead to death or serious injury and permanent disability, such as from brain injury or amputation. If you are concerned that you or someone else may have early signs of meningitis, do not wait for serious deterioration or a rash before taking action to obtain urgent medical help.

For 30 years, Boyes Turner’s meningitis claims specialists have helped clients with severe disability caused by delayed treatment of meningitis rehabilitate, recover compensation and rebuild their lives. We wish all students the best of outcomes with their A-level results and support Meningitis Now in urging them to learn about meningitis, so that they can take care of themselves and ‘look out for their mates’ at university.

If you have been severely injured as a result of medical negligence and would like to find out more about making a claim, you can talk to one of our experienced solicitors, free and confidentially, by contacting us here.