What is Meningococcal Disease?

Meningococcal disease is a rare but often life-threatening disease caused by the bacterium Neisseria meningitidis (commonly known as the meningococcus). There are 13 strains of meningococcus. The strains that worldwide are the most common cause of disease are A, B, C, W and Y.

There has been a recent increase in strain W since 2013, which now makes up almost half of Australian cases. Meningococcal W presently has a higher death rate than the other strains because most cases are due to a particularly virulent strain.

Most meningococcal disease occurs in children aged under five years of age and in older adolescents and young adults.[1]


[1] Meningococcal vaccines for Australians/NCIRS Fact sheet: March 2017


People with meningococcal disease can become extremely unwell very quickly. They may feel sicker than they have ever felt before. After being infected, it usually takes one to ten days for symptoms to appear. The possible symptoms are: fever, rash, headache, neck stiffness, sensitivity to light, muscle aches, cold hands and feet, confusion, irritability, joint pain, nausea and vomiting.

Babies often don’t have many of these symptoms but may be febrile, be slow or inactive, unsettled, drowsy, floppy and not feeding.

How is it spread?

Meningococcus is only carried and passed on by humans. It is spread by coughing, sneezing and regular, close, prolonged household or intimate contact with infected secretions from the back of the nose and throat. The bacteria can only survive a few seconds outside the body so they cannot be picked up from the environment.

Carriage rates are highest in older teenagers.


People with meningococcal disease could develop a number of conditions:

  • An infection of the lining around the brain (meningitis)
  • An infection of the blood (septicaemia)
  • Joint infection (arthritis)
  • Lung infection (pneumonia)
  • Permanent brain damage
  • Death in up to 10%[2]

1 in 5 people[3] who recover may have lingering health problems. Many of the problems get better with time. Some of the issues experienced are:

  • Skin scarring (1 in 30)
  • Limb deformity
  • Deafness
  • Blurring and double vision
  • Learning difficulties



[3] Meningococcal Australia The Facts 2014 Accessed 8 August 2017


Immunisation against meningococcal disease is the best protection against meningococcal disease.

Who should get immunised?

Meningococcal C vaccine is part of the National Immunisation Program and is free for children aged 12 months. Meningococcal C disease is now very well controlled with only a handful of cases per year.

Quadrivalent meningococcal vaccine protects against strains A, C, W and Y

In most states/territories, the vaccine is free for adolescents between 15-19 years of age. In states where it is not funded, the vaccine is available as a private prescription for adolescents.

Vaccine is also available as a private prescription for:

  • Some travel destinations, occupations and medical conditions
  • Anyone over 2 months* wanting to protect themselves or their family from these strains of meningococcal disease[4][5]

* Menveo is the only brand of 4vMenCV that should be used in infants <12 months of age

Meningococcal B vaccine is available on private prescription for:

  • Infants, young children, adolescents, young adults living close together, some medical conditions and occupations
  • Anyone over 6 weeks* wanting to protect themselves or their family from this strain of meningococcal[6]

* MenBV is registered for use from 2 months of age. However, the 1st dose can be given as early as 6 weeks of age to align with the schedule for other routine infant vaccines.



[5] Meningococcal vaccines for Australians/NCIRS Fact sheet: March 2017

[6] The Australian Immunisation Handbook 10th ed part 4 (page last updated 1st August 2017). Canberra: Australian Government Department of Health; 2015


If meningococcal disease is suspected, an antibiotic (usually penicillin) is given immediately by injection. People with meningococcal disease are almost always admitted to hospital and may require admission to an intensive care unit.

More information for Clinicians

To follow

Page published: 10 May 2017

Page updated:     9 August 2017