The UK Health Security Agency (UKHSA) has warned of a surge in meningitis B cases among young adults and teenagers in England.
In autumn 2021 there was an increase in the number of cases of meningococcal disease – caused by the bacteria that can go on to cause meningitis and septicaemia – among young people, following a period where cases were at a historic low due to Covid-19 restrictions.
UKHSA said this suggested low levels of immunity against the strain and high transmission rates among young people, with cases of meningitis B exceeding pre-pandemic levels by 30 November 2021.
The UKHSA noted a rise in cases among university students in particular, many of whom returned to in-person teaching in the autumn, which may have an impact on the work of occupational health professionals in the higher or further education sectors.
A research paper published by the UKHSA notes that in September to November 2021, 41.5% of invasive meningococcal disease (IMD) cases occurred among 15-19 year olds, compared to 11.8% and 14.3% during the same period in 2018 and 2019 respectively.
Of the IMD cases confirmed among the 15-19 and 20-24 year-old age groups in September to November 2021, 84.6% were further or higher education students.
OH and higher education
Among all adult age groups meningitis B cases increased in relation to the same period in 2020, but were substantially lower than the figures observed in 2018 and 2019.
“Following the easing of Covid-19 containment measures, disease rates may be held at very low levels by targeted vaccination in appropriate age cohorts, however, where immunity is low and transmission is high, disease caused by these bacterial pathogens may recover to pre-pandemic levels in a relatively short period of time,” the paper states.
The UKHSA has advised people to look out for the common signs of meningitis and septicaemia, which include vomiting, a fever with cold hands and feet, severe muscle pain, pale blotchy skin or a rash, and severe headache.
Professor Ray Borrow, head of the vaccine evaluation unit at UKHSA and one of the lead authors of the paper, said: “If you’re concerned you have any of the symptoms seek immediate medical help as the earlier you get treatment the better.
“Students and young people can also help protect themselves against some types of meningococcal bacteria by ensuring that they’ve had their MenACWY vaccine.
“We have one of the most comprehensive surveillance programme for vaccine preventable diseases and will continue to monitor cases of meningococcal disease across England,” he added.