Two thirds of school leavers remain unvaccinated against meningitis, despite the national catch-up programme and a rising number of “W strain” fatalities, the Royal College of Nursing has warned.
Public health experts at the RCN are calling on the government and NHS to launch an urgent targeted campaign via social media to reach school leavers in England.
“A targeted social media campaign could save lives”
It highlighted that young people, due to go to university for the first time, had just two weeks to get vaccinated before the traditional start of term in mid-September – so-called “fresher’s week”.
The vaccine is available at any time of year but new university students are particularly at risk from the disease as they enter shared accommodation, warned the college.
The latest official figures from Public Health England show two thirds of those who turned 18 last year did not receive the jab, with a lower uptake than the previous year – 33% versus 39%.
It suggests more than 400,000 school leavers per year did not receive the new comprehensive meningitis vaccine, introduced in 2015, that incorporates protection against the W strain for the first time.
The RCN added that, while cases of other meningitis strains have become less common, cases of MenW are increasing.
There were 80 MenW cases between January and March 2017, compared to 72 during the same period in 2016 – representing an increase of 11%.
Since 2015, school leavers should receive a reminder letter from their local GP and a further reminder that is included in letters sent to students by the university admissions service UCAS.
But many miss these warnings, noted the RCN, which is calling for other forms of communication to be used with the at-risk group.
RCN warns of ‘profound public health challenges’
Helen Donovan, public health lead at the RCN and an expert in vaccination, said: “A targeted social media campaign could save lives.
“The low take-up is a serious concern as people starting university are particularly at risk,” she said.
“Letters are not enough – it’s vital we communicate with young people using platforms they are likely to use,” said Ms Donovan.
She added: “Vaccination is quick, easy and free, and offers protection against most strains of the disease, but reaching young people is not easy.
“Many will have been away over the summer travelling or working before university. But the risk is real and getting vaccinated saves lives,” she stated.