News

Meningococcal disease warning

23 June 2017

Two new cases of meningococcal disease – in an infant and a young adult – have been confirmed by the Department of Healthin the past week, and are currently recovering in separate hospitals.

Young boy with rash

The cases are not linked, and had different types (serogroups B and W) of the bacterium that causes the disease.

Meningococcal disease is an uncommon, life-threatening illness caused by a bacterial infection of the blood and/or the membranes that line the spinal cord and brain, and occasionally of other sites, such as large joints.

There are several types of meningococcal bacteria, but is most commonly caused by what are known as serogroups A, B, C, W and Y organisms.

Meningococcal bacteria are carried harmlessly in the back of the nose and throat by about 10-20 per cent of the population at any one time. Very rarely, the bacteria invade the bloodstream and cause serious infections.

Meningococcal bacteria are not easily spread from person-to-person. The bacterium is present in droplets discharged from the nose and throat when coughing or sneezing, but is not spread by saliva and does not survive more than a few seconds in the environment.  

Symptoms may include high fever, chills, headache, neck stiffness, nausea and vomiting, drowsiness, confusion, and severe muscle and joint pains. Young children may not complain of symptoms, so fever, pale or blotchy complexion, vomiting, lethargy (blank staring, floppiness, inactivity, hard to wake, or poor feeding) and rash are important signs.

Sometimes – but not always – symptoms may be accompanied by the appearance of a spotty red-purple rash that looks like small bleeding points beneath the skin or bruises.

Although treatable with antibiotics, meningococcal infection can progress very rapidly, so it is important that anyone experiencing these symptoms seeks medical attention promptly.

With appropriate treatment, most people with the disease recover, although around 5 per cent will die and around 15 per cent may experience complications such as hearing loss, or gangrene requiring skin grafts or amputations.

As a result of the recent increase in serogroup W disease in WA, a funded state-wide meningococcal ACWY vaccination program for adolescents aged 15 to 19 years commenced this year, and most of those eligible will receive vaccine at school during third term. 

A vaccine to protect against the serogroup C type of meningococcal disease  is provided free to children at 12 months of age. A vaccine against serogroup B meningococcal infection is available on prescription.