What is meningococcal disease?
Meningococcal disease is a rare but serious illness caused by bacteria (germs) called Neisseria meningitidis. The different strains (‘serogroups’) of these bacteria are named by letters of the alphabet such as A, B, C, W and Y.
The most common strain continues to change over time. Meningococcal C vaccine became part of the National Immunisation Program (NIP) in 2003, and disease due to strain C is now rare.
Currently throughout Australia the most common strains are Meningococcal B, W and Y. The highest incidence of disease is in children aged under 2 and adolescents aged 15-19 years of age.
What are the symptoms?
People with meningococcal disease often go from feeling quite well to extremely unwell very quickly.
Symptoms include fever, headache, neck pain or stiffness, light sensitivity, drowsiness or confusion, severe muscle aches and pain, vomiting and rash (a red rash which does not fade when pressed and can become dark purple).
Sometimes other symptoms can include lung infection (with fever, cough, chest pain and difficulty breathing), or severe throat infection (with pain, difficulty swallowing, and drooling).
Children and adolescents can have leg pain, cold hands and feet, and blotchy skin.
Babies and infants often don’t have these symptoms but can be unsettled or drowsy, floppy and not feeding.
It can take from one to seven days from being exposed to the bacteria to becoming sick. Symptoms can become life threatening within hours.
How is it spread?
Meningococcal bacteria are spread in secretions of the throat and nose. This is more likely to happen among people with close, regular and prolonged contact.
About 1 in 10 people can carry meningococcal bacteria in their throat or nose. These carriers do not typically become sick.
Regular exposure to tobacco smoke can increase the risk of catching the bacteria and becoming ill.
The bacteria don’t survive outside the body and don’t spread easily from shared drinks, food or cigarettes.
How is it diagnosed?
Meningococcal disease is diagnosed in blood samples, or fluid samples from around the spinal cord.
How is it treated?
People with meningococcal disease need urgent treatment in hospital. Treatment usually starts before test results are known. Treatments include, antibiotics, medications for fever and pain and fluids.
Some people may need admission to the intensive care unit.
A person is no longer contagious after 24 hours of antibiotics.
How is it prevented?
Immunisation is the best way to prevent meningococcal disease.
Meningococcal ACWY vaccine
In 2017, in response to an increase in meningococcal W cases in Tasmania, the state ran a vaccination program for all people aged between six weeks and 21 years of age.
From 1 July 2018 a four-strain meningococcal vaccine for strains A, C, W and Y (Nimenrix) replaced the meningococcal C vaccine as part of the National Immunisation Program (NIP) for all children aged 12 months. This vaccine is currently also available free to adolescents aged 14-19 years.
Meningococcal B vaccine
Currently meningococcal B vaccine (Bexsero) is available for free on the NIP to all Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children aged less than 2 years old. People of all ages with certain medical conditions that increase their risk of invasive meningococcal disease are eligible for both NIP-funded meningococcal ACWY and B vaccines.
Both vaccines are also available via private prescription for those who wish to protect themselves or their family from these strains of meningococcal disease.
What should I do if I have had contact with someone who has meningococcal disease?
Antibiotics are given to people (contacts) who live in the same house, and those who have spent a long time or been intimately close, with someone with the disease. This is because one of these people may have the bacteria in their throat or nose. Antibiotics ‘clear’ the bacteria out of their throat and nose so they can’t pass it to other people. Contacts may also be offered a meningococcal vaccine.
It is rare for people to develop the illness after being in close contact with someone who has meningococcal disease, but you should still watch out for symptoms of meningococcal disease.
Contacts of someone who has meningococcal disease can go to work, school and childcare.
What should I do if I have meningococcal disease?
Meningococcal disease is a medical emergency. If you or someone close to you has symptoms that concern you, seek help immediately from your doctor, hospital emergency department or ambulance service.
Public Health Hotline – Tasmania on 1800 671 738 to speak to a Clinical Nurse Consultant