Knowledge about risk of meningitis among teens remains worryingly low, survey reveals

Just one in ten parents and young people aged 14-18 are aware that teenagers are among the most at-risk for contracting meningitis, according to new research from GSK.

As part of GSK’s Tackle Meningitis campaign, in partnership with former England Rugby player, Matt Dawson, and backed by UK charities Meningitis Research Foundation and Meningitis Now, a survey of 2,000 parents and young people aged 14-18 across the UK revealed that understanding of the risk of meningitis among teens remains worryingly low.

Most parents believe their teenage children were at just moderate (55%) or low (33%) risk, and the results among young people were similar (50% and 36%, respectively). There was a gender difference among the 14-18 year-olds, with boys statistically more likely to rate their risk as low compared to girls (40% vs. 34%).

The survey also highlighted a number of other important gaps in awareness, including a lack of knowledge about the signs and symptoms of the disease.

Eighty percent of parents named a rash as the symptom they would most commonly associate with meningitis in teenagers, despite the fact it often appears after other symptoms or not at all. They were less aware of some of the symptoms that are more likely to appear earlier in the course of illness such as muscle pain (42%) and cold hands and feet (20%). These symptoms may be important for early diagnosis. Overall, young people were less aware than parents of all possible symptoms, with 50% recognizing rash, 48% aware of flu-like symptoms and 32% identifying muscle pain. However, most worryingly, almost a quarter (22%) of young people were unaware of any of the symptoms associated with meningitis.

“These results highlight that people are still naming the rash as the first symptom they would associate with meningitis. It is crucial not to wait for the rash to appear before seeking help, because it is a sign that the disease is advancing rapidly,” says Matt Dawson. “There is also still work to be done to improve awareness of key symptoms amongst young people. I would urge as many people as possible to visit our campaign website www.tacklemeningitis.org for more information about the disease.”

Other gaps in knowledge were revealed when respondents were asked about the number of strains of meningitis. Both parents and teens were unsure, with 38% of adults and 36% of young people replying that they did not know how many strains exist. Just one in 10 in both groups correctly stated that there are more than six strains of bacterial meningococcal meningitis.

Full understanding around vaccination was also lacking. Less than half of parents (47%) were aware that multiple vaccines are available to treat some of the different strains. This was better-understood (60%) by young people, possibly because they may have been offered routine meningitis vaccination through school or university.

Sally Gunnell, former Olympic Gold Medallist, mother of three and supporter of the Tackle Meningitis campaign said:

It is so important for young people and their parents to know more about meningitis, because they are the most at-risk group after babies and young children. As a parent of three teens myself, I know there is enough to worry about without the fear of meningitis, so we all need to do what we can to reduce the risk. If you’re a parent, talk to your healthcare professional about what options there are.

Despite meningitis being a serious illness, young people seem unworried by it. Around half (49%) of 14-18 year-olds people felt as concerned about meningitis as they were about mumps, measles, glandular fever and sexually transmitted diseases. Just 15% felt more concerned. This figure was higher amongst parents, 41% of whom were more concerned about meningitis than these other infections.

The survey results highlight that more needs to be done to increase understanding and uptake of meningitis vaccination. Although 60% percent of 14-18 year olds had been vaccinated, only 45% said they were covered for more than one strain. A recommendation from a doctor or healthcare professional would prompt most teenagers (74%) and parents (77%) to seek advice about vaccination.

Symptoms of meningitis can develop rapidly. The first symptoms are usually fever, vomiting, headache and feeling unwell. Limb pain, pale skin, and cold hands and feet often appear earlier than the rash (which doesn’t fade when a glass is rolled over it), neck stiffness, dislike of bright lights and confusion. Although a rash is often the most well-known symptom, it is often a sign that the disease is advancing rapidly and it is therefore crucial not to wait to for it to appear before seeking medical attention.

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