What is Meningococcal disease?
Invasive meningococcal disease (IMD) is a severe but uncommon infection that occurs when meningococcal bacteria invade the body from the throat or nose. At any given time, meningococcal bacteria are carried harmlessly at the back of the throat or in the nose in about 10% of the community. Although most people who have these bacteria in their throat or nose remain quite well, they are able to spread the bacteria to others, and a few of these people may subsequently become ill. Older adolescents and young adults who carry this bacteria commonly spread the meningococcal bacteria.
There are 13 different types of meningococcal bacteria (called ‘serogroups’), but worldwide most disease is caused by serogroups A,B, C, Y and W.
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:
- 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, 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 is meningococcal disease treated?
Antibiotic treatment in hospital is essential. The earlier treatment is started the more likely you are to make a full recovery.
Under the National Immunisation Program, the meningococcal ACWY vaccine is provided for free to:
- children at 12 months of age
- year 10 students through the School Immunisation Program
- young adults aged 15 to 19 years through their doctor or immunisation provider.
From 1 July 2020, meningococcal ACWY vaccine (Nimenrix®) is funded under the NIP for people of all ages with certain medical conditions that increase their risk of invasive meningococcal disease.
Like all medications, vaccines may have side effects. Most side effects are minor, last a short time and do not lead to any long-term problems. Possible side effects of the meningococcal vaccine may include soreness, redness and swelling at the injection site, fever, loss of appetite and headache. These side effects should last only for a short time. More serious side effects are extremely rare.
For further information on vaccinations for the various types of meningococcal disease please go to https://immunisationhandbook.health.gov.au/search/meningococcal