The University College London (UCL) has recently been informed by Public Health England that one of our students has died from confirmed meningococcal disease. Our thoughts are with the student’s family and friends at this very sad time.

Neisseria meningitidis  Image/CDC
Neisseria meningitidis

Information and advice about meningitis was sent to all UCL students on 11 February. The following briefing note for UCL staff has been developed by the UCL Occupational Health Service and Public Health England.

Around 10% of the population carries the meningococcus (bacterium causing meningitis) in the back of their throat or nose without causing any illness. It is transmitted from person to person by inhaling respiratory secretions from the mouth and throat or by direct contact (kissing). Close and prolonged contact is usually needed for transmission.

Occasionally, the meningococcus can cause invasive disease, including meningitis (inflammation of the meninges), septicaemia (blood poisoning) and pneumonia. Young children and teenagers are at highest risk of meningococcal disease. It is not known why some individuals carry the bacteria without them causing harm while others go on to develop invasive disease.

Early signs and symptoms of meningococcal disease may be non-specific and, therefore, difficult to distinguish from common and self-limiting viral illnesses.

Most cases of meningococcal disease occur in children under the age of five, but there is another peak of incidence between the ages of 15-19 years of age; the age of many students entering higher education. When cases occur amongst the student population, the Health Protection Team, part of Public Health England, will follow up close contacts (as defined above) of confirmed cases of meningitis. This can include staff, although there are no close contacts have been identified at this time. Where necessary, a course of antibiotics will be given to kill the meningococcil in the nose and throat and to reduce the risk of transmission to others.

The risk of meningitis is low, however it is important that everyone is aware of the symptoms of meningitis, to enable swift referral for medical assessment and, when indicated, treatment.

Any suspected case of meningitis must be treated as a medical emergency, as it may be difficult to identify the type of meningitis at an early stage.

Symptoms can occur in any order and may not all present. Symptoms include fever, with cold hands and feet vomiting, headache and feeling unwell. There may be aches and pains in limbs, stiff neck, sensitivity to light, convulsions or seizures and a distinctive rash; pale, blotchy skin (although not everyone will have this)

Don’t wait for a rash to develop. If someone is unwell and has symptoms of meningitis, seek medical help immediately.