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Meningitis B: signs and symptoms of illness rising among students - is it contagious and is there a vaccine?

Meningitis is an infection of the protective membranes that surround the brain and spinal cord

Cases of Meningitis B among students in England are rising sharply and exceeding pre-pandemic levels, according to a report by the UK Health Security Agency (UKHSA).

But what is Meningitis B, what are the symptoms and is there a vaccine?

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Here’s what you need to know.

What is Meningitis B?

Meningitis B is one type of meningococcal disease (commonly referred to as meningitis) caused by the bacteria Neisseria meningitidis.

Meningitis is an infection of the protective membranes that surround the brain and spinal cord (meninges).

It can affect anyone, but is most common in babies, young children, teenagers and young adults, and can be very serious if not treated quickly.

Meningitis can cause life-threatening blood poisoning, known as septicaemia, and result in permanent damage to the brain or nerves.

What are the symptoms?

Symptoms of meningitis develop suddenly and can include:

  • a high temperature (fever)
  • being sick
  • a headache
  • a rash that does not fade when a glass is rolled over it (but a rash will not always develop)
  • a stiff neck
  • a dislike of bright lights
  • drowsiness or unresponsiveness
  • seizures (fits)

These symptoms can appear in any order and you do not always get all the symptoms.

Is it contagious?

Meningitis is usually caused by a bacterial or viral infection. Bacterial meningitis is rarer but more serious than viral meningitis.

Infections that cause meningitis can be spread through:

  • sneezing
  • coughing
  • kissing

Meningitis is usually caught from people who carry these viruses or bacteria in their nose or throat, but are not ill themselves.

It can also be caught from someone with meningitis, but this is less common.

Is there a vaccine against Meningitis?

There are a number of vaccinations available that offer some protection against meningitis.

These include the:

  • meningitis B vaccine – offered to babies aged 8 weeks, followed by a second dose at 16 weeks and a booster at 1 year
  • 6-in-1 vaccine – offered to babies at 8, 12 and 16 weeks of age
  • pneumococcal vaccine – offered to babies born before 1 January 2020 at 8 and 16 weeks and 1 year of age; babies born on or after 1 January 2020 have 2 doses at 12 weeks and 1 year
  • Hib/MenC vaccine – offered to babies at 1 year of age
  • MMR vaccine – offered to babies at 1 year and a second dose at 3 years and 4 months
  • meningitis ACWY vaccine – offered to teenagers, sixth formers and "fresher" students going to university for the first time

The MenB vaccine is offered as part of the NHS vaccination schedule and is given to babies at:

  • 8 weeks
  • 16 weeks
  • 1 year

Your GP surgery or clinic will send you an appointment for your baby to have their MenB vaccination along with their other routine vaccinations, with most surgeries and health centres running special immunisation or baby clinics.