World Meningitis Day is being held on 24 April 2021 to raise awareness of the devastating effects of meningitis and to urge governments from across the world to defeat meningitis by 2030.1 Bacterial meningitis, also known as invasive meningococcal disease (IMD) is a rare but potentially deadly infection of the membranes that surround and protect the brain and spinal cord.2,3 An infected person can spread the disease to others through close contact, including coughing, sneezing, kissing and sharing utensils.4
Among the general public, meningitis is a poorly understood disease, and its symptoms can be easily confused with other diseases such as flu, malaria or even COVID-19.1 There are still around 500–800 confirmed cases of meningococcal disease every year in England, with fatalities occurring in approximately 5% of cases.5
There has been some good news recently – research has shown that there has been a significant reduction in invasive meningococcal disease during the course of pandemic thanks to all of the social distancing and preventative measures in place.6,7 Public Health England reported that cases of the disease were 76% lower in April to June 2020 compared with the equivalent period in 2019.7
However, this momentary positive news does not mean we should drop our guard. Lockdown has also meant that vaccination programmes usually taking place in schools have been suspended. This includes the routine MenACWY vaccine for school pupils which protects against meningitis.8
It is unclear how or when this group will now receive this vaccination, and many may remain unprotected. Teenagers who are not vaccinated can also endanger wider populations, including babies and the elderly, by carrying meningococcal bacteria at the back of their nose and throat and can unknowingly pass it to others.9 In addition, meningitis vaccination rates in under 5s have dropped in the UK with some parents feeling reluctant to attend routine immunisation appointments due to COVID-19 fears, or not wishing to overburden the NHS.10,11
The decrease in vaccination rates coupled with the imminent lifting of lockdown restrictions could be a recipe for a resurgence of the disease and future outbreaks, which could have a huge impact on individuals’ lives, healthcare systems and entire communities. Meningitis is an unpredictable disease and there is no way of telling where or when an outbreak will occur.
It is certainly not the time to get complacent and we must continue to keep meningitis at the front of our minds given its potentially life-changing effects, with vaccinations representing our best defence against this disease. It is critical that sufficient resource and consideration is given to the delivery of routine vaccination programmes in order to mitigate the decrease in vaccine uptake. This should include the publication of guidance to support the roll-out of catch-up programmes throughout the year. Comprehensive surveillance and monitoring will also help us obtain a clearer understanding of variation in coverage rates so effort can be focused in areas of low uptake.
The UK has seen a rapid roll-out and uptake of COVID-19 vaccinations over the past few months and we are already starting to see encouraging data suggesting the positive impact of the programme on disease rates. Building on the success of the COVID-19 vaccine rollout, we need to make sure that immunisation against other infectious diseases like meningitis, which has a high fatality rate, is a top priority across the UK and globally.
Sanofi Pasteur has been helping to combat meningococcal epidemics for over 45 years and is the biggest supplier of meningococcal vaccines in the world. Our aim is to continue to protect those at risk and prevent future outbreaks by helping to vaccinate as many people as possible without delay. We are committed to playing our part in achieving the WHO and Meningitis Research Foundation’s vision of a world free from meningitis by 2030,12 and we look forward to working together with individuals, governments and healthcare commissioners to achieve this goal. Take a look at the WHO’s ‘Defeating Meningitis by 2030’ Roadmap here.
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- Confederation of Meningitis Organisations. Available at: https://www.comomeningitis.org/world-meningitis-day-2021 [Accessed March 2021]
- Vaccine Knowledge Project. Meningococcal Disease Available at: https://vk.ovg.ox.ac.uk/vk/meningococcaldisease#:~:text=At%20the%20moment%20disease%20cause,%2D18%20(193%20cases). [Accessed March 2021]
- European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control (ECDC). Surveillance Atlas of Infectious Diseases. Available at: https://www.ecdc.europa.eu/en/meningococcal-disease/surveillance-and-disease-data/atlas [Accessed March 2021].
- NHS. Meningitis. Available at: https://www.nhs.uk/conditions/meningitis/ [Accessed March 2021]
- Public Health England. Invasive meningococcal disease in England: annual laboratory confirmed reports for epidemiological year 2018 to 2019. Available at: https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/842368/hpr3819_IMDann.pdf [Accessed March 2021]
- Taha MK & Deghmane AE. Impact of COVID-19 pandemic and the lockdown on invasive meningococcal disease. BMC Res Notes 2020; 13:399.
- Public Health England. Laboratory confirmed cases of invasive meningococcal infection in England: April to June 2020. Available at: https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/921954/hpr1720_imd_Q2.pdf [Accessed March 2021]
- Meningitis Research Foundation. Vaccination programmes during COVID-19. Available at: https://www.meningitis.org/news/vaccination-programmes-during-covid-19 [Accessed March 2021]
- NHS. MenACWY vaccine overview. Available at: https://www.nhs.uk/conditions/vaccinations/men-acwy-vaccine/ [Accessed March 2021]
- MRF. What does COVID-19 mean for meningitis? Available at: https://www.meningitis.org/blogs/covid-19-coronavirusmeningitis [Accessed March 2021]
- Public Health England. Quarterly vaccination coverage statistics for children aged up to 5 years in the UK (COVER programme): July to September. Available at: https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/946348/hpr2420_COVER.pdf [Accessed March 2021]
- Sanofi Pasteur. Meningococcal meningitis. Available at: https://www.sanofi.com/en/your-health/vaccines/meningococcalmeningitis [Accessed March 2021]