What is meningococcal disease?
Meningococcal disease is an uncommon, but sometimes life-threatening illness. The disease is a result of a bacterial infection of the blood and/or the membranes that line the spinal cord and brain.
Although treatable with antibiotics, the infection can progress very rapidly, so it is important that anyone experiencing symptoms of meningococcal disease seeks medical attention promptly.
At any one time, approximately 10 per cent of healthy people carry meningococcal bacteria harmlessly in their nose or throat, and do not become ill.
There are 13 different types of meningococcal bacteria (called 'serogroups'). In WA, around 90 per cent of all cases are caused by serogroup B organisms.
Rarely, the meningococcus causes serious invasive infections, including septicaemia (infection of the blood), meningitis (infection of the membranes that cover the brain and spinal cord) and other illnesses.
How common is it?
On average there are between 10 and 20 cases of meningococcal disease in WA each year, mainly in winter and spring. Nearly all cases of meningococcal disease are unrelated to other cases. Meningococcal disease can occur at any age, but babies and young children (0 to 5 years) are most at risk, followed by older teenagers (15 to 24 years).
How do you get meningococcal disease?
Meningococcal bacteria are spread by respiratory secretions (coughing or sneezing), but not by saliva, so it cannot be picked up by drinking from the same cup or sharing food. The bacteria do not survive more than a few seconds in the environment, so cannot be picked up from surfaces or objects (for example, a pillow) that have been contaminated by the infected person’s respiratory secretions.
The disease is most likely to be spread only to very close contacts, such as people who live in the same household, sexual contacts and children attending the same day care for more than 4 continuous hours.
Signs and symptoms
Meningococcal disease can be a severe infection, but most people make a full recovery. However, about 10 per cent of cases suffer a long term disability (e.g. deafness). In very rare cases, if left untreated, Meningococcal infection can result in death. Meningococcal disease usually takes 3 to 4 days to develop but can take as long as 10 days. It is important that people with the symptoms seek medical advice early. The disease is serious and can be life-threatening, but most people recover completely with early antibiotic treatment.
Symptoms in babies include:
- rapid breathing or panting
- vomiting or difficulty feeding
- lethargy (extreme tiredness) or difficult to wake
- unusual crying or moaning.
Symptoms in older children and adults include:
- neck stiffness
- muscle or joint pains
- drowsiness or confusion.
Sometimes – but not always – these symptoms may be accompanied by the appearance of a spotty red-purple rash that looks like small bleeding points beneath the skin or bruises. It is important to get this type of rash checked by your doctor promptly.
How do I know I have meningococcal disease?
Diagnosis can be difficult at the start of the illness. If you are sent home by the doctor or hospital, it is important to monitor symptoms and return promptly for further checks if symptoms get worse or do not improve.
Treatment of meningococcal disease
Antibiotic treatment in hospital is essential for anyone with meningococcal disease. The earlier treatment is started the more likely you are to make a full recovery.
How can meningococcal disease be prevented?
Very close contacts are those who have had a lot of close contact with the person who has the disease within the 7 days before the start of symptoms. These can include:
- household members
- sexual contacts
- children in the same child care group for more than 4 continuous hours.
Public Health Unit staff conduct contact tracing once informed by the hospital of a meningococcal case.
Contacts are individually assessed. If they are considered 'high risk' they will be offered an antibiotic to clear meningococcal bacteria from the nose and throat. The antibiotics will not prevent the disease occurring if the person is already incubating the infection.
Low risk contacts are casual contacts with no history of prolonged close exposure, for example school or work contacts. This group will be given information (in the form of a fact sheet) to ensure they are informed about the signs and symptoms of meningococcal disease. Preventative antibiotic treatment is not routinely offered to these contacts.
People who have been exposed to a confirmed case should monitor themselves for signs and symptoms of the illness for around 2 weeks after their last contact with the infected person. They should seek medical advice if they develop any of the symptoms mentioned above or if they are concerned.
Is there a vaccine against meningococcal disease?
Vaccines are available against some meningococcal serogroups. These include serogroup C and the new meningococcal B serogroup.
Meningococcal C vaccine is now combined with the Haemophilus influenzae type B vaccine known as Menitorix and is offered free to all children when they are 1 year old. Only 1 dose is required for long-term protection in people 12 months of age or older.
Meningococcal B vaccine is not currently funded by the national immunisation program but is available privately; you will need a prescription from your doctor to purchase this vaccine. The number of doses required will depend on the age of the person.
A different type of meningococcal vaccine that protects against serogroups A, C, W and Y is recommended for people who travel to high risk areas such as sub-Saharan Africa, the Middle East or Nepal. These vaccines require a booster dose every 3 years. People considering vaccination should seek advice from their local doctor or a travel doctor.
Your local public health staff are responsible for following up all contacts of a meningococcal case. They will tell you what action you can take to prevent yourself you from becoming ill. They can also provide antibiotics to those people identified at risk of becoming infected, for example household contacts.
Download meningococcal disease fact sheet (PDF 280KB).
Where to get help
Seek medical advice early if you think you or your child has meningococcal disease:
- See your doctor.
- Visit a GP after hours.
- Ring healthdirect Australia on 1800 022 222.
This publication is provided for education and information purposes only. It is not a substitute for professional medical care. Information about a therapy, service, product or treatment does not imply endorsement and is not intended to replace advice from your healthcare professional. Readers should note that over time currency and completeness of the information may change. All users should seek advice from a qualified healthcare professional for a diagnosis and answers to their medical questions.