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Meningococcal disease

9-minute read

Key facts

  • Meningococcal disease is a contagious disease caused by meningococcal bacteria.
  • Meningococcal disease is a medical emergency. If you are worried that you or someone you care for may have meningococcal disease, see your doctor immediately or go to the nearest emergency department.
  • Anyone can develop meningococcal disease, but some people — like infants and small children — are at a higher risk.
  • Vaccines are available to prevent meningococcal disease.

What is meningococcal disease?

Meningococcal disease is a contagious disease caused by a bacterium called Neisseria meningitidis (also known as meningococcal bacteria). It can develop quickly, and it can be fatal. Anyone with a suspected meningococcal infection needs to see a doctor immediately.

Meningococcal disease is a medical emergency. It can kill within hours, so early diagnosis and treatment is vital. Do not wait for the purple rash to appear as that is a late stage of the disease.

If you are worried that you or someone you care for may have meningococcal disease, see your doctor immediately. If your doctor is not available, go to your nearest emergency department.

What are the symptoms of meningococcal disease?

The main symptoms of meningococcal disease are:

  • rash of red or purple pinprick spots, or larger bruise-like areas, that does not turn skin-coloured when you press on it with a finger or the side of a clear drinking glass
  • fever
  • headache
  • neck stiffness
  • light sensitivity
  • nausea or vomiting
  • diarrhoea
  • drowsiness and confusion
  • difficulty walking or talking

In babies and young children, you might notice they:

  • refuse food
  • are fretful and irritable
  • are very tired and floppy
  • have a fit or are twitchy
  • have a high moaning cry

The signs and symptoms do not appear in a definite order and some may not appear at all.

This symptoms list does not include every possible sign and symptom.

Very occasionally, meningococcal bacteria can invade the bloodstream, causing meningococcal disease that may present itself as sepsis (a blood infection, also known as 'septicaemia' or 'blood poisoning'), meningitis (inflammation of the membrane surrounding the brain and spinal cord), or an infection of another body part, such as the joints and eyes. Most cases occur in children under 5 years, but it can happen in people of any age.

CHECK YOUR SYMPTOMS — Use our Symptom Checker and find out if you need to seek medical help.

What causes meningococcal disease?

In Australia, the most common types of meningococcal bacteria are called B, W and Y. These bacteria live in the nose or throat, and can be spread through coughing, sneezing, sharing eating and drinking utensils and kissing.

It is not easy to pass the bacteria on, because they cannot survive outside the human body for long periods of time. The only way they are passed from person to person is if you live in the same house or have intimate contact, like deep kissing.

How is meningococcal disease diagnosed?

It is vital to diagnose meningococcal disease as soon as possible so that treatment can be started quickly. Diagnosis is made by asking about symptoms and testing a sample of blood, spinal or joint fluid.

FIND A HEALTH SERVICE — Our Service Finder can help you find doctors, pharmacies, hospitals and other health services.

How is meningococcal disease treated?

Meningococcal disease is treated with intravenous antibiotics in hospital and often requires intensive care support.

Who is at risk of meningococcal disease?

Anyone can develop meningococcal disease, but some people are at a higher risk than others. This includes:

  • household contacts of people with meningococcal disease
  • infants, small children, adolescents and young adults
  • people who smoke or are exposed to tobacco smoke
  • people who practice intimate kissing, especially with more than one partner
  • people who have recently had a viral upper respiratory tract illness
  • travellers to countries with high rates of meningococcal disease
  • people with no working spleen or who have certain other rare medical conditions

Can meningococcal disease be prevented?

There are different vaccines in Australia to protect against different types of meningococcal bacteria. You need to be vaccinated at different times to protect against different strains.

The meningococcal vaccine is not 100% effective. Even if you (or your child) have had a meningococcal vaccination, go to your doctor or the hospital straight away if you have symptoms of meningococcal disease.

While some vaccines are available for different strains from 6 weeks of age, the Government recommends meningococcal vaccination for:

  • babies and young children under 2 years old
  • teenagers and young adults aged 15-19 years
  • teenagers and young adults aged 15 to 24 who live in crowded conditions
  • Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people aged 2 months to 19 years
  • teenagers and young adults aged 15 to 24 years who are current smokers
  • travellers to places where meningococcal disease is more common
  • people who have medical conditions that increase their risk meningococcal disease, such as people with some blood disorders or weakened immune systems
  • laboratory workers who work with the bacterium that causes meningococcal disease

Meningococcal ACWY vaccine

Vaccination is your best protection against meningococcal disease. This table explains how the vaccine is given, who should get it, and whether it is on the National Immunisation Program Schedule. Some diseases can be prevented with different vaccines, so talk to your doctor about which one is appropriate for you.

What age is it recommended?

12 months.

Teenagers from 14 to 19.

When to get vaccinated? If you are travelling and haven’t been vaccinated, consult your doctor or visit a travel health clinic 6 to 12 weeks before you leave Australia.
How many doses are required? 1, 2, 3 or 4, depending on the vaccine and the age it is given.
How is it administered? Injection
Is it free?

Free for babies at 12 months of age and adolescents aged 14 to 16 years at school, or from 15 to 19 as part of an ongoing catch up program.

Find out more on the Department of Health website and the National Immunisation Program Schedule, and ask your doctor if you are eligible for additional free vaccines based on your situation or location.

Common side effects The vaccines are safe. Side effects may include pain, redness and swelling where the needle went in, fever (especially for meningococcal B vaccine), feeling unsettled or tired, decreased appetite or headache.

What are the complications of meningococcal disease?

Long-term effects of the disease include:

  • deformed arms and legs, or losing a limb
  • joint aches and stiffness
  • scarring
  • ringing in the ears (tinnitus)
  • deafness in one or both ears
  • kidney or liver failure
  • headaches
  • blurred or double vision
  • blindness
  • learning difficulties

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Last reviewed: April 2021

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