Father urges students to have meningitis vaccine

The father of a University of Cambridge student is urging all teens and young adults to get vaccinated against meningitis after his daughter nearly lost his life.

Dee Patel had never heard of the MenACWY vaccine when he dropped Shirali off at university for the first time.

He recalled: “When Shirali finished sixth form and got a place at the University of Cambridge to study medicine, we couldn’t have been more proud.

Shirali Patel caught meningitis while studying at the University of Cambridge
Shirali Patel caught meningitis while studying at the University of Cambridge

“When Shirali was back for the Christmas holidays she became seriously ill. On the Monday before Christmas she woke up suddenly with an inflamed throat and told me she didn’t feel well. We took her to the GP who said she was just a little unwell with flu but said to take paracetamol and keep an eye on it.

“On Tuesday she got a lot worse and had a fever which we tried to keep under control with paracetamol. On Wednesday she was still feeling ill but I had to go to work so left her at home.

“She’s a medical student but even she did not know that her illness was about to become so life threatening. Within around two to three hours she rapidly declined. She couldn’t even get to the bathroom without a real struggle.

“My son had stayed at home and he got her to the GP. Realising the seriousness of the situation the GP called an ambulance to get her straight to A&E. Even then she was still deteriorating.

“She was taken into the ICU where at first the doctors thought she may have leukaemia. It was later diagnosed that she in fact had meningococcal W septicaemia (MenW).

“She was critically ill and the doctors prepared us for the worst, telling us she had little chance of survival. All I kept thinking was that if we’d known about the MenACWY vaccine the summer before she started university she could have got the vaccine and she would never have got ill.

“Thanks to the quick treatment she received in hospital she pulled through and she was able to leave hospital a month later – in January this year.

“We feel very lucky that she has made a good recovery. If my son had not been at home that day she would not have made it. She’s had to defer university for a year while she recovers but this is a small price to pay.”

Now he has joined doctors in the East of England to encourage teenagers and students to ensure they have had their MenACWY vaccination by checking with their GP. The jab is free and can be requested if it has been missed.

Uptake of the meningitis MenACWY vaccine needs improving in the East of England region, with almost 20 per cent in some areas missing their routine vaccine in secondary school, leaving local teenagers unprotected before arriving at university this academic year.

First year or returning students can be at increased risk of meningitis as they mix with large numbers of other students from around the country and overseas. Low immunity levels and a lack of exposure to infections during the pandemic has left young people vulnerable to meningococcal disease, so it is especially important to remind students to get the MenACWY vaccine if they missed this at school.

David Edwards, acting lead consultant in health protection at the UK Health Security East, said: “Meningitis is a very serious illness that can sometimes lead to death. It is very important that young people, especially those in their late teens who are going to university where they will be mixing with lots of other people, should protect themselves by taking the MenACWY vaccine.

“Young people are eligible for this free vaccine up to their 25th birthday, so take this life-saving opportunity now.

“Some of the symptoms of meningitis includes high temperature, cold hands and feet, vomiting, confusion, blotchy rash, headache, aching muscles and joints and a stiff neck.”

Meningococcal disease can cause meningitis – a dangerous swelling of the lining around the brain and spinal column – and septicaemia (blood poisoning), both of which can trigger sepsis. Meningococcal disease needs urgent treatment and can be life-threatening. For more information, visit nhs.uk/conditions/meningitis/.

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