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Meningococcal disease.

Meningococcal disease.
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Meningococcal disease

5-minute read

What is Meningococcal disease?

Meningococcal disease is 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 common symptoms of meningococcal disease in babies and young children include:

  • fever
  • food refusal
  • fretfulness
  • drowsiness
  • purple-red skin rash or bruising that does not turn skin-coloured when you press on it with a finger or the side of a clear drinking glass
  • high moaning cry
  • light sensitivity
  • pale or blotchy skin

Symptoms in older children and adults include:

  • headache
  • fever
  • vomiting
  • neck stiffness
  • joint pains
  • drowsiness and confusion
  • purple-red skin rash or bruising that does not turn skin-coloured when you press on it with a finger or the side of a clear drinking glass
  • light sensitivity

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.

What causes meningococcal disease?

In Australia, the 5 most common types of meningococcal bacteria found are called A, B, C, 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’s 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.

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.

How is meningococcal disease diagnosed?

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

How is meningococcal disease treated?

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

Can meningococcal disease be prevented?

There are different vaccines in Australia to protect against different types of meningococcal. 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, especially children under 2 years old
  • healthy adolescents aged 15 to 19 years
  • adolescents and young adults living together in close quarters, such as dormitories and military barracks adolescents and young adults who are current smokers
  • people who are travelling overseas, especially to places where meningococcal disease is more common
  • people who have medical conditions that increase their risk of invasive meningococcal
  • people with weakened immune systems
  • laboratory workers who work with the meningococcal bacteria
  • Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people aged 2 months to 19 years

Meningococcal 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.

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Last reviewed: May 2020

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