Cases of meningococcal disease in Australia so far this year have outstripped the total number for 2021 (1).
This life-threatening illness causes swelling to the brain and spinal column and can cause symptoms such as fever and a distinctive rash.
In this post, we give you the facts about meningococcal disease so you know how to act if you spot the signs.
What is meningococcal disease?
Meningococcal disease is a serious illness caused by a bacterium, which can progress quickly.
There are lots of different strains of meningococcal disease. In Australia, strains B, W and Y cause most cases.
Because it can leave the patient with serious complications or even cause death, it’s important to recognise the signs and take action quickly if you suspect someone is affected by it.
See your doctor immediately or go to your nearest emergency department if you suspect meningococcal disease.
Who is at risk for meningococcal disease?
While anyone can develop meningococcal disease, some people are at higher risk. These include:
- Babies and children under 5 years of age (who are most at risk)
- Adolescents (aged 15 to 19) and young adults
- People living in households where someone has developed meningococcal disease
- Smokers or people who are exposed to tobacco smoke
- People who have had a viral upper respiratory tract illness recently
- People who practise intimate kissing (with tongues), particularly with multiple partners
- People who travel to countries with higher rates of the disease
- People who do not have a working spleen or have certain other medical conditions (for example, people living with HIV infection)
Meningococcal disease symptoms
It’s essential to spot the symptoms of meningococcal disease. The main symptoms include:
- A rash made up of purple or red pinprick spots or larger areas that resemble bruises — this rash does not blanche (turn skin-coloured) when you press it with your finger or the side of a clear glass
- Stiff neck
- Sensitivity to light
- Nausea or vomiting
- Confusion or drowsiness
- Trouble walking or talking
You may notice a change in the behaviour of babies and young children, including:
- Refusing food
- Extreme tiredness
- Having a fit or twitching
- A high-pitched, moaning cry
Know that not all the symptoms will present and they do not present in a particular order.
The distinctive rash does not always appear, and there may be other signs and symptoms not listed here.
You should also know that in some cases, the bacteria may enter the bloodstream and cause:
- Sepsis (infection of the blood)
- Meningitis (inflammation of the membrane that surrounds the spinal cord and brain)
- An infection in another part of the body — for example, the eyes
What’s the treatment for meningococcal disease?
Meningococcal disease needs to be treated in hospital with intravenous antibiotics.
A stay in ICU may be required.
What are the complications of meningococcal disease?
The disease can sometimes cause long-term complications, including:
- Loss of a limb or deformed limbs
- Aching joints and stiffness
- Tinnitus (ringing in the ears)
- Deafness (in one or both ears)
- Double or blurred vision
- Liver or kidney failure
- Learning difficulties
How can I prevent meningococcal disease?
Vaccination is an effective way to help prevent meningococcal disease. Because there are lots of different strains of meningococcal disease, there is no single vaccine that can protect against them all. But different vaccines are available to help prevent the most common strains.
The meningococcal ACWY vaccine is routinely offered to children at 12 months and 14 to 16 years, according to the National Immunisation Program.
Meningitis vaccine is also recommended to some other groups — for example:
- Young adults up to the age of 24 who live in crowded conditions
- Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people aged between 2 months and 19 years
- People who are travelling to places where meningococcal disease is more prevalent
- People with certain medical conditions that increase their risk of getting the disease
Talk to your doctor if you think you or a loved one should have the meningococcal vaccine.
It’s important to understand that meningococcal vaccines do not offer 100% protection against the disease. You should seek medical help if you suspect infection with the disease.
Close contacts of patients with meningococcal disease — for example, people in the same household — may be offered antibiotics to help prevent them from getting it too.
Good hand hygiene can also help to prevent the spread of all infections. Make sure you wash your hands frequently with soap and water for at least 20 seconds each time.
You can use hand sanitiser in between handwashing to kill germs and help prevent the spread of infection.
How do I find out more about meningococcal disease?
To know more about meningococcal disease, check out the Know Meningococcal website.
And for more information on wellbeing products that can help keep you and your family healthy, see the FeverMates online shop.
We stock a range of items, from thermometers through to cooling products, to help prevent the spread of infection and treat minor illnesses at home.
But remember, if you are concerned that you or a loved one could be affected by meningococcal disease, get medical attention straight away. Swift action means effective treatment — and could save a life.
- The Sydney Morning Herald, ‘From bubbly to brain-dead in six hours: warning as meningococcal cases rise, 19 October 2022.