Call for student meningococcal jabs

University of Otago students in the Information Services building as they prepare for end of year...
Students in Central Library. PHOTO: ODT FILES
A major increase in the number of New Zealand teenagers and young adults getting meningococcal disease has prompted the University of Otago to call for students to be vaccinated before they start flooding back into Dunedin next month.

The latest Institute of Environmental Science and Research (ESR) data shows the number of cases of meningococcal disease in the 15-29 age group during January 2024 has increased by 88%, compared with January 2023.

Maori youth are among those experiencing the largest increases in case numbers, with three times as many recorded as the previous year.

The figures also show a 67% increase in the number of cases among teenage European males.

Maori and Pasifika infants and toddlers made up the majority (55%) of cases last year, but there has been a shift in the burden to the 15-29 demographic.

Last year, those aged between 15-29 made up 16% of cases. For the same period this year, they make up 35% of all cases.

University of Otago Student Health Services head Margaret Perley said the university took the disease "extremely seriously" and a lot of resources and planning went in to educating students about the disease and encouraging them to get vaccinated, ideally prior to their arrival on campus next month.

"Student Health met with residential college wardens in late 2023, to discuss the vaccination campaign for 2024 and plan with them how best to offer the vaccination from their perspective."

Information on meningitis had been sent out to the 2024 cohort by the colleges, to encourage both meningococcal B & ACWY vaccinations to be completed prior to arrival at Otago, she said.

In addition, a copy of vaccination information would be put alongside other Student Health enrolment forms, in each college room for when students arrive, and would be highlighted when caregivers dropped their children off at the college.

"They will see the vaccinations available, and the hope is it will encourage their child to have the vaccination," she said.

"Whilst targeting the funded residential college students is a key priority, we are also focused on the need for vaccination within the wider student population.

"Dunedin is somewhat unique in the density of students in a relatively small locale.

"The whole student population is high risk due to their close living, studying and socialising."

Meningococcal disease is an uncommon, but life-threatening, bacterial infection causing two serious illnesses — meningitis (an infection of the membranes that cover the brain) and septicaemia (blood poisoning).

Despite medical care, about one in 10 patients who contract the disease will die, and up to one in five survivors will have permanent disabilities, such as brain damage, amputated limbs and hearing loss.

There are several types of meningococcal bacteria, including groups A, B, C, W and Y. The most common in New Zealand is meningococcal group B.

Symptoms of meningococcal B can be difficult to diagnose. They include headaches, fever, a sore neck and/or a rash.

Often flatmates will assume someone who is ill could simply be suffering from Covid-19, the flu or a hangover, but they need to be vigilant and act quickly because the disease can take a life within 24 hours.