Health conditions

Meningococcal disease

  • Meningococcal is a rare but life threatening disease.
  • Antibiotics to treat meningococcal are available but the disease progresses rapidly so visit a doctor promptly.
  • Free meningococcal vaccines are available in WA for eligible people.

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. Rarely, however, a small proportion of people will develop serious 'invasive' infections.

There are 13 different types of meningococcal bacteria (called 'serogroups'), but worldwide most disease is caused by serogroups A,B, C, Y and W. Until recently, around 90 per cent of serious meningococcal infections in WA were caused by serogroup B organisms. However, there has been an increase in infections caused by serogroup W organisms (MenW) in WA and other Australian states since 2015.

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.

Children up to 5 have the highest risk of developing meningococcal disease in WA. Some of the highest rates of meningococcal carriage and illness occur among 15 to 19 year olds. Once infected, they can transmit the bacteria to people who are at increased risk of infection, including young children.

University students living in residential colleges are also at increased risk of developing meningococcal disease because of their prolonged and close contact with others,.

How do you get meningococcal disease?

Meningococcal bacteria are spread by respiratory secretions (coughing, sneezing or kissing), but are not easily spread by sharing food or drinks. 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 table or 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.

What are the signs and symptoms?

Unlike other meningococcal serogroups, invasive disease caused by Men W is more severe. People may also experience different symptoms. For example, some people may get septic arthritis or severe upper respiratory tract infections such as pneumonia or gastrointestinal symptoms.

All meningococcal disease can be severe, but most people make a full recovery. However, about 10 per cent of cases suffer a long term disability (e.g. loss of a limb, neurological damage). In very rare cases, if left untreated, meningococcal infection can result in death and, while low, Men W has twice the death rate of other strains. 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:

  • fever
  • rapid breathing or panting
  • vomiting or difficulty feeding
  • irritability
  • lethargy (extreme tiredness) or difficult to wake
  • unusual crying or moaning.

Symptoms in older children and adults include:

  • fever
  • headache
  • vomiting
  • diarrhoea
  • neck stiffness
  • muscle or joint pains
  • drowsiness or confusion.

Sometimes, 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.

How is meningococcal disease treated?

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?

Close contacts

Very close contacts are defined as those who have had close (within arm's length) and prolonged contact with a person who is carrying the bacteria within 7 days before the start of symptoms. Contacts can include:

  • household members
  • sexual contacts
  • children in the same child care group for more than 4 continuous hours
  • party, pub or nightclub goers.

Public Health Unit staff conduct contact tracing once informed by the hospital of a meningococcal case.

Contacts are individually assessed. Depending on their level of risk they will be offered antibiotics or given further information on signs and symptoms to look out for to try and prevent the illness.

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.

Are there vaccines to protect against meningococcal disease?

Vaccines are available against meningococcal serogroups A, B, C, W and Y.

Meningococcal ACWY vaccine is a combined meningococcal vaccine that protects against 4 strains – A, C, W and Y. Meningococcal ACWY vaccine does not offer protection against Meningococcal B disease, and vice versa. Meningococcal B vaccine protects against the B strain.

Learn more about the meningococcal vaccines.

More information

  • For vaccination information you can contact your local immunisation provider, public health unit or GP.

Metropolitan Perth

Central Immunisation Clinic

Phone: (08) 9321 1312 (8.30am – 4.30pm Monday to Friday)

Regional Western Australia

WA Country Health Service (WACHS)

Where to get help

Seek medical advice early if you think you or your child has meningococcal disease:

  • See your doctor
  • Ring healthdirect on 1800 022 222

Last reviewed: 03-01-2024

Public Health

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.

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