Students starting school and college in September are at increased risk of serious illnesses

A leading testing expert fears a perfect storm of infections in September as students start at schools and colleges. School closures during Covid lockdowns mean 1-in-8 students starting university this year remains unprotected against meningitis. Concern is growing early symptoms may be confused with freshers’ flu.

It's an exciting but worrying time when children and young adults start at a new school or university. However, as well as the traditional stresses of getting to know new campuses and people, a leading health testing expert says students must learn the difference between ‘freshers’ flu’ symptoms and something more serious this September.

Leading testing expert, Dr Avinash Hari Narayanan (MBChB), Clinical Lead at London Medical Laboratory, says: ‘Schools go back next week and many universities’ freshers’ weeks start on 18 September. Due to the impact of Covid lockdowns on school inoculation schedules, health professionals are increasingly concerned about the new academic year.

‘The MenACWY vaccine usually protects against four strains of the meningococcal bacteria – A, C, W and Y – that cause meningitis and bloodstream infections (septicaemia). It’s normally offered to all pupils aged 13 to 15 years old alongside the “teenage booster” jab, which is given to increase protection against tetanus, diphtheria and polio.

‘However, many students who were aged around 15 in 2020 may have missed these key jabs because of Covid school closures. This age group is now starting university. The latest MenACWY coverage data shows the vaccination rate has now fallen to 79.6%.

‘There is also concern some students may have missed their MMR vaccine, protecting against measles, mumps, and rubella, and their HPV vaccine, protecting against human papilloma virus-related cancers.

‘Potentially, this is a health crisis waiting to happen. Many first-year students starting college or university this September are not up-to-date with all their inoculations. Therefore, they are at increased risk of serious diseases as they mix with large numbers of other students from around the country and overseas.

‘It's particularly concerning, as cases of so-called “freshers’ flu” (usually caused by assorted bugs that spread quickly through the student population in the first weeks of term) can be confused with symptoms of meningitis in its early stages. Like freshers’ flu, meningitis is initially difficult to distinguish from a bad hangover or common, milder illnesses. This can also be the case with the early stages of measles or mumps.

‘For students and parents concerned about the potential increase in meningitis cases, it’s important to note that anyone born on or after 1 September 1996 who was eligible but missed their teenage MenACWY vaccine can still have the jab up to their 25th birthday.

‘However, it’s also important to remember that MenACWY does not protect against all meningitis strains, for example MenB, which is often common among students. So it’s vitally important to know the signs and symptoms of meningitis even if you have received the MenACWY jab.

‘Meningitis and septicaemia can develop suddenly. Symptoms include:

  • a blotchy rash that doesn’t fade when a glass is rolled over it
  • fever
  • headache
  • aching muscles and joints
  • a stiff neck
  • sensitivity and intolerance to light
  • The MenW strain can also cause vomiting and diarrhea in teenagers and young adults

‘With the exception of the rash, the concern is that all of these symptoms may be mistaken initially for freshers’ flu and/or the weeklong hangover that is often considered a rite of passage for new students. Urgent antibiotic treatment and hospitalization is critical as soon as meningitis is diagnosed.

‘Meanwhile, it's not only university that can act like a Petri dish, creating the conditions in which bacteria and viruses can mushroom – so too can school. Last year, Covid cases soared by 12.7% between 11-17 September as students returned to the classroom, caught the virus and spread it to their families. As a result, between 13-19 September 2022 there was a sudden 16.9% boom in Covid hospitalizations. That’s doubly concerning this year as the axing of Covid boosters for 50-64 year olds this autumn means more family members will have less antibodies than last year.

‘For anyone concerned about their overall health as they start university or as their kids return to school, a general health test might provide reassurance that they are in overall good health to help fight the symptoms of new viruses.

‘London Medical Laboratory’s General Health Profile blood test provides people with a comprehensive check-up of their general health, including diabetes (HbA1c), gout, liver & kidney function, bone health, iron levels and a full cholesterol profile. It can be taken at home through the post, or at one of the many drop-in clinics that offer these tests across London and nationwide in over 95 selected pharmacies and health stores.

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