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Young people in the West Midlands encouraged to get lifesaving MenACWY vaccination


Young people in the West Midlands are putting themselves at risk of life-threatening meningitis, as figures show uptake of the MenACWY vaccine has been worryingly low in parts of the region – with Birmingham and the Black Country showing the worst vaccination rates.

Around 1 in 5 students in Birmingham (21.3%), Walsall (18.6%) and Sandwell (17.1%) missed their routine vaccine in secondary school, leaving local teenagers unprotected before arriving at university this academic year. The best uptake of the MenACWY vaccine was in Coventry, where 4.8% of young people were unvaccinated; followed by Warwickshire, with 5.9% unprotected against meningitis.

Caryn Cox, Consultant in Health Protection leading on vaccine preventable diseases for UKHSA West Midlands, said: “Meningococcal bacteria can cause meningitis – a dangerous inflammation of the lining around the brain and spinal column – and septicaemia (blood poisoning), which can both trigger sepsis. Meningococcal disease needs urgent treatment and can be life-threatening. That’s why such low uptake of the free MenACWY vaccine in parts of the West Midlands is so worrying – because it really can be a matter of life and death.

“First year or returning students are at increased risk of meningitis, mixing with large numbers of other students from around the country and overseas. Low immunity levels and a lack of exposure to infections since the pandemic has left young people even more vulnerable to meningococcal disease, so it’s especially important that students get their MenACWY vaccine if they missed it at school.”

Someone who knows the devastating impact meningitis can have, is 20-year-old Samantha Field, a university student in Birmingham, who was admitted to hospital with meningitis in April of this year. She said: “It started simple with vomiting. I thought nothing of it. Must be a sickness bug. Then I started to become weak and had persistent painful headaches. I tried to get stronger and decided to go on my holiday in Brighton. I went to A&E in Brighton to be told it’s a sinus infection. “The headaches stopped my sleep, I couldn’t regulate my temperature I became so weak, I struggled to walk. I lost appetite and on my last day of holiday was sick after breakfast. I also had a horrible sensation that I was falling like a drop rollercoaster, but I wasn’t, I was sat on my bed. It was all in my mind. At this point I had every meningitis symptom except the rash. But I didn’t know what meningitis was in detail other than it caused a rash. “I deteriorated fast, I had unbearable headaches, I was vomiting couldn’t walk and my eyesight would go and return. At this point my family knew it wasn’t a sinus infection I was rushed to A&E by my mum and admitted for suspected meningitis. All of this is just the beginning of my story with meningitis. Each day was a battle there wasn’t a day I didn’t cry to my mum or dad and say ‘I can’t do this anymore’ but I did. “All of this could have been avoided so easily if I had just had a meningitis vaccine, but I didn’t. But what I can do is stop other people from making the same mistake. If my story can encourage people to get vaccinated or learn the signs of meningitis, then my experience is worth it. “My story isn’t over yet I’m still struggling. My memory loss and headaches are persistent. I’ve had to basically retrain my body to walk. The body image issues and mental health strain from what I went through may never go away. But I will continue to push though with the support of my amazing family and friends. I beat meningitis and I continue to every day.”

Often confused with a flu, a hangover or COVID-19, students are particularly at risk of missing the early warning signs of meningitis.

A new digital campaign, launched by Meningitis Now, Meningitis Research Foundation, A Life for A Cure, the NHS, UKHSA and GlaxoSmithKline is calling for young people to register with a GP, take up the offer of MenACWY and familiarise themselves with meningitis symptoms. Parents are reminded to check whether their child is protected by the MenACWY vaccination and to contact their child’s GP if they still require a vaccine.

Claire Wright, Head of Evidence and Policy at Meningitis Research Foundation said: “Meningitis can kill healthy people within hours and is difficult to distinguish from a bad hangover or more common milder illnesses in the early stages. By taking up the free MenACWY vaccine, those in school and university students are not only protecting themselves but also protecting others by stopping the bacteria from being passed on. For those who have already been vaccinated it remains important to be aware of the signs and symptoms of meningitis because the free vaccine does not protect against MenB, which is the most common cause of life-threatening meningitis amongst this age group.”

The MenACWY protects against four strains of meningococcal disease, but not all forms, like MenB so it is vital that young people know about signs and symptoms of this serious disease, and what to do if they are worried about their own or someone else’s health.

Symptoms of meningitis and septicaemia include: a blotchy rash that doesn’t fade when a glass is rolled over it, fever, aching muscles and joints and a stiff neck. You should get medical advice as soon as possible if you're concerned that you or your child could have meningitis. For more information, visit: Meningitis - NHS (www.nhs.uk)

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