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New Research Shows Misunderstanding Among UK Teens That Could Put Them at Risk of Meningitis

18 September 2017

This year we commissioned a survey from ComRes, an organisation who conduct research across social, political, and business life. We asked them to explore how we could best communicate with adolescents in Europe about vaccines.

They conducted an online survey with 14 to 18 year olds from six European countries, collecting their perceptions and understanding of vaccines.

Meningitis Research Foundation sponsored the UK questions within the survey, the results of which are below. The full survey results will be released shortly.

New research for Meningitis Awareness Week shows misunderstanding among teens that could put them at risk of meningitis

  • New research shows 41% of UK teenagers surveyed (aged 14-18) think vaccines are needed as a baby or toddler, but only 33% think they are needed at school or university, despite an urgent campaign to vaccinate teenages to protect against a deadly new strain of meningitis

  • Teenagers are a high risk group and anyone starting university is particularly at risk – levels of the bacteria being carried by students increases dramatically in the first few weeks

  • New students must get vaccinated now if they haven’t already to protect themselves before it is too late

  • Uptake of a lifesaving vaccine among school leavers has been low

New research published during national Meningitis Awareness Week, 18-24 September 2017, shows that 41% of UK teenagers surveyed (aged 14-18) think vaccines are needed as a baby or toddler, but only 33% think vaccines are needed at school or university, despite an urgent campaign to vaccinate teenagers to protect them against a deadly new strain of meningitis.

The research, supported by Meningitis Research Foundation (MRF) and the Confederation of Meningitis Organisations (CoMO), also found that 29% of teenagers surveyed incorrectly believe meningitis is not contagious and a further 29% don’t know whether it is or not.

While babies and young children are most at-risk of meningitis and septicaemia, teenagers and young adults are the next most at-risk group.

The new MenACWY vaccination programme was introduced for teenagers in 2015 following a rapid rise in a new and particularly deadly type of meningitis - meningococcal W meningitis and septicaemia (MenW) - identified by MRF’s Meningococcus Genome Library project.

Yet uptake of the MenACWY vaccine among older teenagers who are eligible to get it from their GP has been worryingly low - only 33% of school leavers in 2016 had taken up the vaccine.

While the majority of teenagers surveyed said they are not afraid of vaccines, 27% disagreed with this statement. This is despite vaccines being thoroughly investigated in clinical trials before their introduction into routine schedules, and good safety records of vaccines that are introduced.

Young people starting university are at particular risk, partly because they mix with so many other students, some of whom are unknowingly carrying the bacteria. They can spread it to others during close contact in university accommodation or in packed social spaces like pubs and clubs. When a person who is vulnerable encounters the bacteria, this results in life-threatening meningitis or septicaemia.

MRF funded research showed that carriage rates of meningococcal bacteria in university students increase rapidly in the first week of term, from 7% on day one, 11% on day two, 19% on day three and 23% on day four. Among students living in catered halls of residence, carriage rates peaked at 34% by December of the first term.

MRF urges students aged under 25 starting university for the first time in England, Wales and Northern Ireland to get the vaccine if they have not already had it. All eligible young people up to the age of 20 are advised to get the lifesaving vaccine whether starting university or not. Ideally students should be vaccinated more than two weeks before starting university, but they can still get the MenACWY vaccine from a GP once they start university in most of the UK.

Vinny Smith, Chief Executive of MRF said, “Sadly we know too many families affected by the deadly MenW strain that’s spreading among students. This is the last chance for any unvaccinated university freshers to make sure they are protected in their first weeks and months at university when their risk of contracting the disease is highest. By getting the vaccine, young people are not only protecting themselves, but also protecting others by stopping the spread of the bacteria.

“Whilst evidence shows that the vaccine is already doing a good job of preventing four types of meningococcal disease - A, C, W and Y - it’s important to remember that this vaccine doesn’t prevent all types of meningitis. That’s why it’s vital for students away from home to watch out for their friends if they’re unwell. If they have meningitis it can be like a very bad hangover that quickly gets worse. It can be deadly, so act fast and get medical help.”

MRF’s eligibility checker makes it easy for anyone to find out if they are eligible to get the MenACWY vaccine free.

Meningitis and septicaemia can develop suddenly and progress rapidly. Early symptoms include headache, vomiting, limb pain, fever, and cold hands and feet. Students should be alert to the symptoms and should not wait for a rash or neck stiffness to develop before seeking medical attention urgently.

For any questions about meningitis and septicaemia call MRF’s free helpline on 080 8800 3344 or visit their website.

For any questions about the UK survey, email Rob Dawson, MRF's Head of Communications, Advocacy and Support. 


Meningitis Research Foundation is a leading UK and international charity that brings together people and expertise to defeat meningitis and septicaemia wherever it exists. MRF has been a full member of CoMO since September 2004.

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