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The Meningitis Foundation Urges University Students To Get Vaccinated This O-Week

As the first university semester of 2024 begins across the country, The Meningitis Foundation is urging students and parents to educate themselves on the risks associated with bacterial meningitis, and to get vaccinated as early as possible.

The Institute of Environmental Science and Research (ESR) meningococcal data for 2023 indicated there were 59 meningococcal cases in 2023. While an overall reduction on the previous year, the only age group that saw incidents increase was the critical 15-24 age group, increasing from 13 to 18 cases.

The Meningitis Foundation board chairman Gerard Rushton says this increase is unacceptable and extremely concerning.

“Approximately 30% of all meningitis cases last year were from people aged 15-24,” he says. “This group of young people need protection against this disease through vaccination, and many aren’t aware that there are funded vaccines available to them.”

The Meningitis Foundation was present at university orientation events at Lincoln University and the University of Canterbury last week, and this week it will be present at the University of Otago, with student health services offering free vaccines to those eligible.

At the University of Canterbury Open Day student health vaccine drive on 16 February, student demand saw all available vaccines administered by lunchtime. The University of Otago also has a considerable number of available vaccines on site today and tomorrow, all of which are expected to be used.

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“While the overall response on the ground here in Canterbury and Otago has been positive, with students eager to vaccinate and protect themselves, our rangatahi should be starting university life fully protected against meningitis, instead of starting a vaccine course in week one,” says Rushton.

“What we really need is an expansion of the eligibility criteria so that all young New Zealanders have access to free vaccines in high school and can start university life fully protected.

“This at-risk group is overrepresented in the data for a reason,” he continues. “We believe the low vaccination rates are directly related to the fact that the eligibility criteria for free vaccines are too confusing and too narrow. We know New Zealanders want the vaccine when it is available to them. Why are we withholding it?”

On 1 March 2023, Pharmac began funding the meningococcal B vaccine (Bexsero) for all children up to 12 months of age (with a relevant catch-up programme), and for people aged 13 to 25 years who are entering into or in their first year of specified close-living situations (with a limited catch-up programme).

The criteria are the same as those for existing meningococcal ACW&Y vaccine, which is also free to eligible groups. Following the expiry of the catch-up programme, only those in their first year in a specified close living situation will be eligible.

Close living situations include boarding school hostels, tertiary education halls of residence, military barracks, and prisons.

The bacteria that cause meningitis are transmitted from person-to-person through droplets of saliva or spit. Close and prolonged contact, such as kissing, sneezing or coughing on someone, or living in close quarters with an infected person, facilitates the spread of the disease. Is can also spread through the sharing of vapes and drink bottles or cups.

The symptoms of meningococcal meningitis in adults and children are:

  • A stiff, sore neck.
  • A sensitivity to light, or a dislike of bright lights (an early warning sign of meningitis).
  • A severe headache.
  • If the child or adult is difficult to wake, or in a drowsy and confused state.
  • A fever, sometimes accompanied by cold hands and feet.
  • Aching sore joints.
  • Vomiting – a common symptom of meningitis in both children and adults.
  • Convulsive fits or seizures is characteristic of meningitis.

About the Meningitis Foundation – Aotearoa New Zealand

Founded in 2010 and administered by a six-strong Board of Directors, the Meningitis Foundation Aotearoa New Zealand strives to educate New Zealanders and raise their awareness of pneumococcal and meningococcal meningitis, promoting its prevention and control by:

  • providing timely, accurate and credible information and educational resources to the general public and healthcare professionals
  • providing a forum for friends and families affected by meningitis to connect and share their stories for mutual support and ongoing awareness of the reality of the disease
  • being an active voice to support public health policy and the introduction of further vaccines to high risk groups
  • supporting an increase in vaccination rates to improve New Zealand’s record for protecting children.

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