Foreign Office health alert to Brits returning from abroad over serious illness

Meningococcal disease can cause meningitis and blood poisoning
-Credit: (Image: Getty Images/Science Photo Libra)

A health alert has been issued after cases of a serious illness were found in the UK among Brits returning from a trip abroad.

Meningococcal disease is an uncommon bacterial infection that can cause meningitis and blood poisoning, although vaccines can help prevent it. Four cases have been found in the UK, as well as three in France and five in the USA up to May 17, with almost all cases found in those having visited Saudi Arabia for Hajj and Umrah, a religious pilgrimage which sees many British nationals travel to the country each year.

People with meningococcal disease can spread the bacteria to others through close personal contact. Common symptoms of meningococcal meningitis can include sudden fever, headache, and stiff neck, with the majority of cases found this year belonging to meningococcus serogroup W in those who have no history of vaccination, Bristol Live reports.

One of the largest gatherings of its kind in the world, the annual pilgrimage sees around three million Muslims gather in Mecca each year, and is associated with "unique health risks" due to the crowds. Health officials at the Foreign Office advise that anyone visiting Saudi Arabia for Hajj and Umrah must have a valid certificate of vaccination against the ACWY strains of meningitis 10 days before arriving.

The European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control (ECDC) explains that invasive meningococcal disease often has a rapid progression with "high case fatality", with patients requiring prompt treatment with antibiotics. Cases are most common in young children, adolescents and young adults, but the risk to the general public in the EU has been assessed as "very low".

"For pilgrims visiting the Hajj and Umrah zones in KSA who are vaccinated with the quadrivalent meningococcal vaccine, the likelihood of infection is low, as they are protected thanks to vaccine-induced immunity," the ECDC said. "For unvaccinated pilgrims visiting these sites, the likelihood of infection is moderate."

Other symptoms of meningococcal meningitis may include nausea, vomiting, increased sensitivity to light, and confusion. Children and infants may show different signs and symptoms, such as inactivity, irritability, vomiting, or poor reflexes, with doctors having been notified to look for these warning signs in returning travellers.

Surveillance of the infection is continuing across Europe, and anyone planning travel to Saudi Arabia has been urged to stay up to date with the latest Foreign Office advice which includes making sure they have met the vaccine requirements. There is a risk of other diseases spreading due to the large crowds, including yellow fever and Covid-19 - those set to go on the pilgrimage are advised to read the Travel Health Pro resources on Hajj and Umrah to ensure they are well prepared.