Meningitis Information

Young teenagers and ‘fresher’ students going to university for the first time are advised to have a vaccination to prevent meningitis W disease.

What is the Men ACWY Vaccine?

The Men ACWY vaccine is given by a single injection into the upper arm and protects against four different strains of the meningococcal bacteria that cause meningitis and septicaemia – meningococcal (Men) A, C, W and Y.

The Men ACWY vaccine is called Nimenrix.

Read the patient information leaflet for Nimenrix (PDF, 385kb).

At What Age Should Teenagers and Young People Have the Vaccine?

The Men ACWY vaccination is being delivered to teenagers and first-time students in a carefully planned three-year programme. The priority is to vaccinate all teenagers from school year 9 onwards before they complete school year 13. There is also a catch-up vaccination programme for new university entrants up to the age of 25.

Schoolchildren: Children aged 13 to 14 (school year 9) will be offered the Men ACWY vaccine in school as part of the routine adolescent schools programme alongside the 3-in-1 teenage booster, and as a direct replacement for the Men C vaccination.

University Students: Students going to university or college for the first time, including overseas and mature students up to the age of 25, should contact their GP to have the Men ACWY vaccine, ideally before the start of, or as soon as possible after the start, of the academic year.

Why Teenagers and Students Should Have the Men ACWY Vaccination

Cases of meningitis and septicaemia (blood poisoning) caused by Men W bacteria are rising due to a particularly deadly strain. Older teenagers and new university students are at high risk of infection because many of them mix closely with lots of new people, some of whom may unknowingly carry the meningococcal bacteria at the back of their noses and throats.

The highest risk of meningitis is in the first year of university, particularly the first few weeks. As the Men ACWY vaccine is being targeted at those at highest risk, students in their second year or above of university are not included in this vaccination programme.

The Dangers of Men W Disease

Cases of meningitis and septicaemia due to Men W have been increasing in England, from 22 cases in 2009 to 176 in 2015. The increase is caused by an aggressive strain of the bug. With early diagnosis and antibiotic treatment, most people with meningococcal disease make a full recovery. But it’s fatal in about 1 in 10 cases and can lead to long-term health problems, such as amputation, deafness, epilepsy and learning difficulties.

Men W infections are particularly severe and usually need to be treated in intensive care. They have a higher death rate than the more common Men B strain.

The Men ACWY vaccine has previously been recommended only for people at increased risk of meningococcal disease, including people with no spleen or a spleen that doesn’t work properly, for Hajj pilgrims, and for travellers to countries with high rates of meningococcal disease, including parts of Africa and Latin America. Read more about Men ACWY as a travel vaccine.

Men ACWY Vaccine Effectiveness

The Men ACWY vaccine provides good protection against serious infections caused by four different meningococcal groups (A, C, W and Y) including meningitis and septicaemia.

The vaccine only contains the sugar coating on the surface of the four groups of meningococcal bacteria and works by triggering the body’s immune system to develop antibodies against the sugar coating without causing disease. Read more about vaccine ingredients.

Men ACWY Vaccine Side Effects

Like all vaccines, the Men ACWY vaccine can cause side effects, but they are generally mild and soon settle. The most common side effects seen in teenagers and young people are redness, hardening and itching at the injection site, fever, headache, nausea and fatigue.

These symptoms should last no more than 24 hours. However, sometimes a small, painless lump develops, but this usually disappears in a few weeks.

Who Should not Have the Men ACWY Vaccine?

You should not have the Men ACWY vaccine if you are allergic to the vaccine or any of its ingredients. You can find out the vaccine ingredients in the patient information leaflet for Nimenrix (PDF, 385kb). You should also check with the doctor or nurse before having the Men ACWY vaccine if you:

  • Have a bleeding problem, such as haemophilia, or bruise easily 
  • Have a high temperature 
  • Are pregnant or breastfeeding 

How is Meningitis W Spread?

Meningococcal disease, including meningitis W, is caused by a bacterium called Neisseria meningitidis (also called the meningococcus). These bacteria can be divided into 13 different groups. Of these 13 different groups, five (A, B, C, W and Y) are responsible for nearly all serious meningococcal infections.

The meningococcal bacteria live in the back of the nose and throat in about 1 in 10 of the population without causing any illness. The bacteria are spread from person to person by close prolonged contact with a person carrying the bacteria, such as coughing, kissing and sneezing.

Very occasionally, the meningococcal bacteria can cause serious illness, including meningitis and septicaemia. Meningococcal infections can strike at any age, but babies, young children and teenagers are especially vulnerable.

Babies, Older People and the Men ACWY Vaccine

Only teenagers and young adults are vaccinated against Men W. Teenagers in particular are the age group most likely to carry the meningococcal bacteria at the back of their noses and throats. The Men ACWY vaccine offers protection at a time when teenagers and young people are at increased risk (entering colleges and universities, where they will be socialising more).

The vaccine stops teenagers from carrying the bacteria. So vaccinating teenagers will reduce the number of carriers, and therefore spread of the Men W bug, both within their social circles and also to other age groups.

How to Spot Meningitis and Septicaemia

Men W disease, like all meningococcal infections, can come on suddenly and progress quickly.  All meningococcal infections can cause meningitis and septicaemia, but Men W can also cause other illnesses, such as pneumonia and joint infections (septic arthritis). Early symptoms of meningococcal disease include:

  • Headache 
  • Vomiting 
  • Muscle pain 
  • Fever 
  • Cold hands and feet 

A rash of tiny red pinpricks may also develop once septicaemia has set in. You can tell this is a meningitis rash if it doesn’t fade under pressure – for instance, when gently pressing a glass against it (the “glass test”). If you, or a child or adult you know, has these symptoms, seek urgent medical advice. Don’t wait for a rash to develop. Early diagnosis and treatment with antibiotics are vital.