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
Sumeyra contracted Meningococcal disease, a sometimes life-threatening illness when she was 20 years old. She had to be placed in a medically induced coma. Luckily Sumeyra survived, but she still suffers from the effects of Meningococcal disease today.
1. Meningococcal vaccines for Australians/NCIRS Fact sheet: March 2017
Meningococcal Disease Symptoms
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:
sensitivity to light
cold hands and feet
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 Meningococcal Disease Spreads
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.
Meningococcal Disease Complications
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 people3 who recover may have lingering health problems. Many of the problems get better with time. Some of the issues experienced are:
5 Meningococcal vaccines for Australians/NCIRS Fact sheet: 1 July 2020
Meningococcal Disease Treatment
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.