Practice nurse advises vaccination for students

Protection . . . University of Otago Student Health practice nurse Melanie Philip says parents should consider vaccinating their teenagers against meningococcal disease before the 2020 university year. PHOTO: BRENDA HARWOOD

As families across New Zealand mark the end of the school year and begin preparations for sending their young adults to university, health experts are urging them to consider an extra health safeguard – vaccination against meningococcal disease.

Among them is University of Otago Student Health practice nurse Melanie Philip, who believes parents would be wise to consider vaccinating their children before they hit university and Orientation week, and before Christmas.

While there have been no cases this year, three students on campus at Otago were struck with the disease last year.

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

A report from the Institute of Environmental Science and Research shows 91 cases of meningococcal disease confirmed so far this year, with students and young adults (under 29) making up 73% of cases.

Ms Philip said, so far this year, Student Health had administered 1290 doses of meningococcal B vaccine, and more than 400 doses of the meningococcal ACWY vaccine.

Her preference would be to see that done before they arrive on campus.

“I’d love everyone to have the vaccine and I would like it to be on the schedule so that everyone has access to it.

“In the meantime we try and educate students and their families on how important it is to be vaccinated,” she said.

Due to its flu-like symptoms, meningococcal B could be difficult to diagnose, and there was potential for it to spread among students living in close quarters and attending lectures together, Ms Philip said.

The University of Otago has about 20,000 students, and Otago Polytechnic has about 9500 students – thousands of whom arrive each year from out of town.

In return, many hundreds of young people depart from Dunedin to attend universities in other cities.

“So, if parents are sending their children away from home to live with a large group of young people, getting them vaccinated will provide reassurance that they have done all they can to protect them from this disease,” Ms Philip said.

As the vaccines were not funded, the cost could be high, and full protection required three doses, so now was a good time to plan for it, she said.

Ms Philip said Student Health was vigilant about meningococcal disease, and students who presented with flu-like symptoms, stiff neck and a possible rash were treated quickly.