FEARS of an impending meningitis epidemic increased this week as two Southampton University freshers died and three more were admitted to hospital, writes Julia Hinde.
University welfare officers are worried that with so many cases emerging so early in the term the outbreak could be worse than last year when at least 16 students died.
As The THES went to press, a cluster of cases had been identified by health officials at Southampton's Wessex Lane halls of residence. A massive vaccination and antibiotics programme is under way involving 1,200 first-year students.
Meningitis also claimed the life this week of a Leicester University student, with at least six more students from universities across the country admitted to hospitals with the disease in the past ten days.
Clare Taylor, senior welfare officer at Leicester University, expressed concern at the outbreaks. "The earliest we have seen meningitis before is mid-November. The fact it is so early makes you very nervous."
The first Southampton student died on October 11 and the second on Monday. Three further cases were confirmed later in the week.
The five students lived in two adjoining halls of residence a mile from the university campus.
The first case has been confirmed as C strain, against which vaccination is available.
At Salford University, 540 students have also been vaccinated against the C strain after two first-years from the same hall of residence were admitted to hospital last Friday.
Two further cases have been reported at the University of Wales Institute, Cardiff. Both involve B strains of the disease, against which there is no vaccine. The students attend the same university campus but no links have so far been identified.
A first-year law student from the University of Wales Cardiff, where two students died from the disease last year, has also been admitted to hospital with suspected meningitis. A further case has been reported at Christ Church College, Canterbury.
Mrs Taylor added that each student at Leicester is told about the disease on arrival and antibiotics have been given to 31 students in the same hall of residence as the 20-year-old student who died.
The outbreaks come a week after a conference entitled "Managing meningitis in universities and colleges" was told that students at universities were more than twice as likely to contract the potentially deadly disease as non-students in the same age group. Students in their first year, living in halls of residence appear to be most at risk.
For more information call the Meningitis Research Foundation (01454 413344) or the National Meningitis Trust (0345 538118).