Public Health England (PHE) is urging young people to get vaccinated against meningitis W – an aggressive strain of the infection.
The health body has said cases of meningitis W, which kills one in 10 of infected people, are increasing with young people most at risk.
In 2009, there were 22 cases of the illness. But this rose to more than 200 last year.
University students are most at risk because they are mixing with a high number of new people who may be carrying the meningococcal bacteria.
PHE is urging at risk groups to be immunised with a vaccine, introduced last year, that protects against meningitis A, C, Y and W.
Dr Mary Ramsay, head of immunisation at PHE said: “Since 2009, there has been a rapid increase in cases of Men W across England, with students particularly at risk.
“Protecting young people from this potentially deadly disease as they embark upon one of the most important periods of their lives is vitally important. The vaccination will save lives and prevent lifelong devastating disability.
“We are encouraging all eligible 17 and 18 year-olds who have just left school to get vaccinated – particularly those heading to college or university. Young people and those around them should be alert to the signs and symptoms of meningitis and septicaemia. Get vaccinated as soon as possible, remain vigilant and seek urgent medical help if you have concerns for yourself or friends.”
Meningitis Research Foundation is sending out information packs to GPs, who will be writing to young people to encourage them to get vaccinated.
The foundation says students should get vaccinated more than two weeks before term starts to help stop the spread, but the jab can still be obtained after the start of University in most of the UK.
However, if students are attending university in Scotland, they need to get it before they leave because young people in Scotland have already been vaccinated.
Early symptoms of the disease include headache, vomiting, muscle pain, fever, and cold hands and feet.
Students should be alert to the signs and symptoms and should not wait for a rash to develop before seeking medical attention urgently.
The vaccine not only protects those who are vaccinated, but also helps control the spread of the disease to other people. It stops those vaccinated from carrying the bacteria that cause the disease.
Vinny Smith, chief executive of Meningitis Research Foundation, said: “We’re encouraging students going to uni for the first time to do something great today. By getting this free meningitis vaccine from your GP you’re not only protecting yourself from a potentially deadly disease, but also protecting others by stopping the spread.
“It’s also vital to watch out for your friends if they’re unwell. If they have meningitis it can be like a very bad hangover that quickly gets worse. It can be deadly so act fast and get medical help.”
Young people can check their eligibility here.