Warning over meningococcal disease for returning students

Issue date: 14 January 2005

ISSUE DATE: 14/01/05
Doctors and universities in Bristol today warned returning students to be on their guard for symptoms of meningococcal disease, which strikes most commonly in the winter months.

The warning of the need for vigilance, from the Health Protection Agency with Bristol University and the University of West of England (UWE), comes after the publication of national guidelines for managing meningococcal disease in universities and colleges, published by Universities UK.

Dr Joyshri Sarangi, from the Avon Health Protection Team, said: "Meningococcal disease is still a threat to students, especially in the winter months, and January is often the peak month for cases. The disease is dangerous because illness can start with a flu-like illness and then rapidly develop into something life-threatening.

“That’s why it is essential that students and staff returning this term, plus our health care professionals, remain vigilant to the symptoms of the disease. When there is a report of a student with suspected meningococcal disease, clear joint procedures kick in to ensure awareness is high, response is swift and the right precautions are taken. These arrangements are further bolstered by the new national guidelines and together these plans could help to save students’ lives.”

Over the two-year period, 2003-2004, there were five cases of meningococcal disease at Bristol University, and four cases at the University of West of England, including one death.

Dr Tony Butler, Director of the Students’ Health Service at Bristol University, said: “We have well-developed plans for dealing with meningitis, but it is vital that students look out for each other so that anyone displaying symptoms receives the earliest possible treatment.”

Robin Champion, University Safety Adviser from the University of West of England, said: “Our established meningitis management arrangements aim to raise student awareness about the disease and its symptoms as well as enabling us to respond promptly to any case of a student with suspected meningitis. However, students themselves must remember to keep a watchful eye on one another and not hesitate in getting medical attention."

The national guidelines' key points are:

• University and college students are at increased risk of infection from meningococcal disease, which is a potentially fatal disease.

• Although many students will have received the vaccine for Group C meningococcal disease, this does not provide protection against other strains of the disease, notably group B which is the most common strain in the UK. Therefore vigilance is required.

• Students should be encouraged to look out for each other and universities should have clear arrangements for looking after ill students and seeking medical assistance.

• The guidelines for management of meningococcal disease will help universities and Health Protection Teams update their plans to prepare before a case occurs and also deal with a single case or outbreak.
• The policies for managing cases or outbreaks should ensure that there are good channels of communication, effective support for students, strong links to Health Protection Teams and local GPs, and access to appropriate advice on the management of the disease.

Notes for Editors

1. Universities UK published the report ‘Managing meningococcal disease (septicaemia or meningitis) in higher education institutions – Guidelines’ on 9 December 2004. http://bookshop.universitiesuk.ac.uk/show/show.aspx?id=218 The Health Protection Agency was closely involved in the drafting of the guidelines. The guidelines assist universities and Health Protection Teams update their plans to prepare before meningitis or septicaemia occurs, and indicate the action different organisations should take following a case or outbreak of meningitis or septicaemia. The guidelines are an extensive update of the 1998 guidance with new sections on meningitis C and student illness (section 3.9).

2. The Health Protection Agency plays a critical role in protecting people from infectious diseases and in preventing harm when hazards involving chemicals, poisons or radiation occur. In the South West, the HPA has a regional office in Stonehouse, Gloucs, and seven health protection teams covering Gloucestershire, Avon, Wiltshire, Dorset, Somerset, Devon and Cornwall.

3. The UK was the first country in the world in 1999 to introduce Group C meningococcal disease vaccine.

4. Several programmes around the world are seeking to develop effective vaccines for Group B disease. In the UK, the Health Protection Agency is due to start clinical trials for an in-house developed Group B vaccine in Sheffield in early 2005. Further details are available from Dr Phil Luton, HPA Porton Down, tel: 01980 612100.

5. Meningitis symptoms in adults and children are:

• High temperature, fever, possibly with cold hands and feet
• Vomiting, sometimes diarrhoea
• Severe headache
• Neck stiffness
• Joint or muscle pains
• Dislike of bright lights
• Drowsiness
• Fits
• The person may be confused or disoriented

Not all of these symptoms will necessarily occur together.

Both adults and children may have a rash, indicative of septicaemia. These clusters of tiny blood spots may appear to be fresh bruises. The `glass test’ can be used to see if a rash might be septicaemia. If you press the side of a clear drinking glass firmly onto the spots or bruises, they will not fade.

Further information is available from the Meningitis Trust (www.meningitis-trust.org.uk), the Meningitis Research Foundation (www.meningitis.org), NHS Direct (www.nhsdirect.nhs.uk), and the HPA (www.hpa.org.uk).

For further media information about health issues, please call Vicky O’Laughlin on 0117 900 2694 or Ruth Kipping on 0117 330 2434.

For further media information from Bristol University, please contact the University Press Office on 0117 928 7777.

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