Young teenagers and 'fresher' students going to university for the first time are advised to have a vaccination to prevent meningitis W disease.
The Men ACWY vaccine is given by a single injection into the upper arm and protects against four different causes of meningitis and septicaemia – meningococcal (Men) A, C, W and Y diseases.
There are two Men ACWY vaccines called Nimenrix and Menveo. They are very similar and both work equally well.
Students going to university or college for the first time, including overseas and mature students up to the age of 25, should contact their GP to have the Men ACWY vaccine, ideally before the start of or in the first few weeks of the academic year.
Why teenagers and students should have the Men ACWY vaccination
Cases of meningitis and septicaemia (blood poisoning) caused by Men W bacteria are rising, due to a particularly deadly strain.
Older teenagers and university students are at high risk of infection because many of them mix closely with lots of new people, some of whom may unknowingly carry the meningococcal bacteria.
The highest risk of meningitis is in the first year of university, particularly the first few months. As the Men ACWY vaccine is being targeted at those at highest risk, students in their second year or above of university are not included in this vaccination programme.
The dangers of Men W disease
Cases of meningitis and septicaemia due to Men W have been increasing in England, from 22 cases in 2009 to 117 in 2014. The increase seems to be speeding up in 2015, caused by an aggressive strain of the bug.
With early diagnosis and antibiotic treatment, most people with meningococcal disease make a full recovery. But it's fatal in about 1 in 10 cases and can lead to long-term health problems, such as amputation, deafness, epilepsy and learning difficulties.
Men W infections are particularly severe and usually need to be treated in intensive care. They have a higher death rate than the more common Men C and Men B strains.
The Men ACWY vaccine has previously been recommended only for people at increased risk of meningococcal disease, including people with no spleen or a spleen that doesn’t work properly, for Hajj pilgrims, and for travellers to countries with high rates of meningococcal disease, including parts of Africa and Latin America.
More about Men ACWY as a travel vaccine.
Men ACWY vaccine effectiveness
The Men ACWY vaccine provides good protection against serious infections caused by four different meningococcal groups (A, C, W and Y) including meningitis and septicaemia.
The vaccine only contains the sugar coating on the surface of the four groups of meningococcal bacteria and works by triggering the body’s immune system to develop antibodies against the sugar coating without causing disease.
Read more about vaccine ingredients.
Men ACWY vaccine side effects
Like all vaccines, the Men ACWY vaccine can cause side effects, but studies suggest they are generally mild and soon settle.
The most common side effects seen in teenagers and young people who receive the vaccine are redness, hardening and itching at the injection site, fever, headache, nausea and fatigue.
Who should not have the Men ACWY vaccine?
You should not have the Men ACWY vaccine if you are allergic to the vaccine or any of its ingredients. You can find out the vaccine ingredients in the patient information leaflets for Nimenrix and Menveo.
You should also check with the doctor or nurse before having the Men ACWY vaccine if you:
- have a bleeding problem, such as haemophilia, or bruise easily
- have a high temperature
- are pregnant or breastfeeding
How is meningitis W spread?
Meningococcal disease is caused by a bacterium called Neisseria meningitidis (also called the meningococcus). These bacteria can be divided into 13 different groups, of which five (A, B, C, W and Y) are responsible for nearly all serious meningococcal infections.
The meningococcal bacteria live in the back of the nose and throat in about 1 in 10 of the population without causing any illness. The bacteria is spread from person to person by close prolonged contact with a person carrying the bacteria, such as coughing, kissing and sneezing.
Very occasionally, the meningococcal bacteria can cause serious illness, including meningitis and septicaemia.
Meningococcal infections can strike at any age, but babies, young children and teenagers are especially vulnerable.
Read more about how meningitis bugs are spread.
Men W cases on the increase
In England, most meningococcal infections are caused by group B (Men B). Men C, Men W and Men Y are usually responsible for only 10-20% of cases.
Although the total number of meningococcal cases in England has been falling since the early 2000s, Men W infections have increased from only 22 cases in 2009 to 117 in 2014. Currently, Men W alone accounts for almost a quarter of all meningococcal infections in England.
From 2009 to 2012, an average of four people died of meningitis W each year. Most of the people who died were elderly. But during 2013 and 2014, there were 24 deaths from Men W disease including, for the first time in over a decade, babies and toddlers.
Read more about meningitis and septicaemia.
Babies, older people and Men W vaccine
Only teenagers and young people will be vaccinated against Men W as part of the new vaccination programme. This is so they will be directly protected by the Men ACWY vaccine at a time when they're at increased risk (entering colleges and universities, where they will be socialising more).
Vaccinating teenagers against Men W should have the added benefit of indirectly protecting other age groups, including unvaccinated babies, children and older people. This is because teenagers are the age group most likely to carry the meningococcal bacteria at the back of their noses.
Vaccinating teenagers will reduce the number of carriers, and therefore spread of the Men W bug, both within their social circles and also to other age groups.
How to spot meningitis and septicaemia
Men W disease, like all meningococcal infections, can come on suddenly and progress quickly.
All meningococcal infections can cause meningitis and septicaemia, but Men W can also cause other illnesses, such as pneumonia and joint infections (septic arthritis).
Early symptoms of meningococcal disease include:
- muscle pain
- cold hands and feet
A rash of tiny red pinpricks may also develop once septicaemia has set in. You can tell this is a meningitis rash if it doesn’t fade under pressure – for instance, when gently pressing a glass against it (the "glass test").
If you, or a child or adult you know, has these symptoms, seek urgent medical advice. Don’t wait for a rash to develop. Early diagnosis and treatment with antibiotics are vital.
Here’s more info on the symptoms of meningitis and the treatment of meningitis.
Other meningitis vaccines
The Hib/Men C vaccine is offered as part of the NHS vaccination programme to all babies aged 12 months old.
The Men B vaccine (Bexsero) is offered as part of the NHS childhood vaccination programme, to all babies aged 2, 4 and 12 months old.
Read this NHS leaflet (PDF, 481kb) which gives information about the Men ACWY vaccine for pupils in school years 9 to 13.
Read this NHS leaflet (PDF, 949kb) which gives information about the Men ACWY vaccine for new university entrants.