LEAVING home and going off to university to study and make new friends is the start of an exciting phase of life for many young people in Britain.

And 19-year-old Helen Liley was no exception as she headed off to Bristol University to study Sociology and Social Policy after taking a gap year when she worked in Romania.

But just two weeks after arriving, as she was starting to find her feet and create new social networks, she was struck down by a near-fatal condition – septicaemia triggered by bacterial meningitis.

Helen’s mum Elaine Liley, who lives in Pershore, said her daughter felt as though she was going down with the flu and she had a thumping headache.

But thanks to her own awareness and the university’s care policy which includes arranging for doctors to talk to the new students, Helen recognised the symptoms and went to A&E at the local hospital.

Mrs Liley said: “All the students were given a Meningitis Trust symptoms card and Helen had six of the eight symptoms. She took herself off to A&E. Within 20 minutes she had gone from being able to walk and speak to not being able to walk and talk.

“There was a nurse who was very quick on the uptake and Helen went from being at the bottom of the waiting list in A&E to the top.”

At hospital they discovered that both her lungs had collapsed, she had a temperature of 107F and a ridiculously high heart beat. She was admitted to the intensive care unit and had a central line put into her heart.

Her prompt action and the speed of the hospital diagnosis and treatment probably saved her life as she was told if she had waited another few hours it could have been a very different outcome.

“I think she came pretty close to being no more. It was very very serious,” said Mrs Liley.

That close call happened in 1999 and Helen made more or less a full recovery – going back to university after five weeks off, finishing her course and going on to work for the Meningitis Trust (now known as Meningitis Now) as a fundraiser for five years. She is now married with a baby and lives in Cheltenham.

The illness did trigger dyslexia, a malfunction in her body’s natural temperature gauge and a weakness in her wrists but many meningitis patients suffer severe disabilities after developing the condition.

Mrs Liley added that while nobody is sure what causes meningitis, the type from which Helen suffered is linked with the stress of doing A levels at school during the previous year, not eating and sleeping well at university and being away from home for the first time.

Another factor which puts students at risk of not recognising the illness is because new friends are not familiar with a person’s behaviour pattern and cannot easily recognise if they are unwell.

“Helen was in Romania during her gap year and she found it very stressful. In some way the hormones that are around with stress create the kind of environment where these bugs can thrive,” she said.

This month the Government has announced it is starting a new meningitis vaccination programme for teenagers aged 17 and 18.

This is due to a rapidly growing increase in cases of a highly aggressive strain of meningococcal disease classified as group W. Cases of MenW have been increasing year-on-year from 22 cases in 2009 to 117 cases in 2014 and it is currently responsible for around a quarter of all laboratory-confirmed meningococcal cases in England.

Earlier this year the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation (JCVI) reviewed the outbreak in detail and concluded that this increase was likely to continue in future years unless action was taken. It advised that 14 to 18-year-olds should be immunised against MenW.

As well as MenW, the vaccination protects against other forms of the disease – meningococcal disease types A, C and Y – which can also be fatal or cause long term complications for those affected.

All teenagers born between September 1 1996 and August 31 1997 are being invited to go along to their GP for inoculation, regardless of their future plans.

Dr Mary Ramsay, head of Immunisation at Public Health England said: “We’re encouraging all eligible teenagers to take-up the offer of vaccination when they are contacted by their GP.

“If you’re planning to go to university or college, you should be vaccinated before the start of the academic term or before leaving home for university or college (ideally two weeks in advance). Please make an appointment with your GP as soon as possible when the vaccine is offered. First time university entrants from 19 to 24 years of age inclusive should also contact their GP for the vaccination.

“Meningitis can be deadly and survivors are often left with severe disabilities as a result of this terrible disease. This vaccine will save lives and prevent permanent disability.

“We must all remain alert to the signs and symptoms of meningococcal disease and seek urgent medical attention if there is any concern. The disease develops rapidly and early symptoms can include headache, vomiting, muscle pain and fever with cold hands and feet. Be aware of all signs and symptoms and trust your instincts – don’t wait for a rash to develop before seeking urgent medical attention.”

Mrs Liley welcomed the new vaccination programme. She said: “It is brilliant they are doing this vaccination programme for teenagers. I would encourage everyone in that age group to go and get vaccinated.”

Dr Carl Ellson, chief clinical lead for NHS South Worcestershire Clinical Commissioning Group, said: “There’s been a rise in the number of people contracting this strain of meningococcal disease, which can be very aggressive and potentially deadly.

“It’s important that all eligible teenagers take-up the offer of this vaccination which can help to protect them against meningitis and septicaemia.

“It’s especially important for anyone heading off to university to have the vaccination, as they have a higher risk of contracting the disease through close contact with new people.”

Caryn Thorogood, head of Student Services at the University, said: “The University of Worcester strongly encourages new students to take up the meningitis vaccine and this advice is included in the handbook they receive before they start their course.

“Once they arrive, meningitis vaccination and awareness is raised as part of their induction and each bedroom in university accommodation has a card, which details the symptoms to look out for.

“We have also invited Meningitis Now to talk to students during Freshers’ Week and we will continue to work with this organisation throughout the year to support our ongoing publicity campaign on campus.”