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Meningococcal meningitis can be fatal or cause great harm without prompt treatment; as many as one out of five people who contract the infection have serious complications.
According to the Centers for Disease Control, about 15% of those who survive are left with disabilities that include deafness, brain damage, and neurological problems.
How meningococcal disease is spread
Meningococcal bacteria are difficult to spread.
They are only passed from person to person by close, prolonged household contact (living in the same house) or intimate contact with infected secretions from the back of the nose and throat (such as deep kissing).
Research shows that low levels of salivary contact are unlikely to transmit meningococcal bacteria.
In fact, saliva has been shown to slow the growth of the bacteria.
Meningococcal bacteria are only found in humans and cannot live for more than a few seconds outside the body.
You cannot catch meningococcal disease from the environment or animals.
Meningococcal disease can occur all year round, but it is more common during winter and early spring.
High-risk groups for meningococcal disease
Although meningococcal disease is uncommon, it is a very serious disease that can occur in all age groups.
In Victoria, the highest risk groups are:
infants and young children, particularly those aged less than two years
adolescents aged 15 to 19 years
people who have close household contact with those who have meningococcal disease, and who have not been immunised
people travelling to places, such as Africa, that have epidemics caused by serogroups A, C, W and Y
pilgrims to the annual Hajj in Saudi Arabia – Saudi Arabian authorities require a valid certificate of vaccination to enter the country
people who work in a laboratory and who handle meningococcal bacteria
special risk and immunosuppressed patients- children (aged from six weeks and over) and adults who have high-risk conditions, such as a poor functioning or no spleen, a complement component disorder, HIV, current or future treatment with eculizumab or a haematopoietic stem cell transplant.
Speak to your doctor about which vaccine you should have (and how long protection will last) if you are in one of these high-risk groups.
Symptoms of meningococcal disease
Meningococcal disease (septicaemia or meningitis) causes a range of symptoms.
If you (or your child) have any of these symptoms, seek medical attention as soon as possible:
contact your doctor immediately, call triple zero (000) for an ambulance or go to the nearest hospital emergency department.
Symptoms in babies and young children
Symptoms of meningococcal disease in infants and young children can include:
- refusing to feed
- irritability, fretfulness
- grunting or moaning
- extreme tiredness or floppiness
- dislike of being handled
- nausea or vomiting
- turning away from light (photophobia)
- convulsions (fits) or twitching
- rash of red or purple pinprick spots or larger bruises.
Symptoms of meningococcal disease in older children and adults can include:
- loss of appetite
- neck stiffness
- discomfort when looking at bright lights (photophobia)
- nausea and/or vomiting
- aching or sore muscles
- painful or swollen joints
- difficulty walking
- general malaise
- moaning, unintelligible speech
- rash of red or purple pinprick spots or larger bruises.
After-effects of meningococcal disease
About a quarter of the people who recover from meningococcal disease experience some after-effects of the infection.
Some of the more common after-effects include:
- skin scarring
- limb deformity
- deafness in one or both ears
- tinnitus (ringing in the ears)
- blurring and double vision
- aches and stiffness in the joints
- learning difficulties.
- permanent brain damage
What is meningococcal disease?
Meningococcal disease is an infection caused by a bacteria, and can lead to 2 very serious illnesses:
meningitis (an infection of membranes that cover the brain)
septicaemia (a serious infection in the blood)
There are several different types of meningococcal bacteria including A, B, C, Y and W.
most cases in New Zealand are caused by group B
the next most common groups are W, Y and C
there have previously been limited outbreaks of meningococcal disease due to group A
How is meningococcal disease spread?
Meningococcal disease can easily be passed from one person to another.
The bacteria can be spread through close contact such as:
living in the same household
coughing and sneezing
kissing, sharing food and drink
Symptoms in a baby or child who has meningococcal disease
have a fever (may also have cool hands and feet, or shivering)
be crying or unsettled
refuse drinks or feeds
be sleepy or floppy or harder to wake
dislike bright lights
have a stiff neck
have red or purple spots or bruises on the skin (see the above photo but be aware only 1 in 3 children with meningococcal disease have a rash)
When should I seek help for my child's meningococcal disease?
Don’t wait – take action
If your child has one or more of the symptoms of meningococcal disease:
ring a doctor, after hours medical centre or Healthline (0800 611 116) right away – whether it is night or day
if it is an emergency, call 111 within New Zealand and ask for an ambulance (use the appropriate emergency number in other countries)
say what the symptoms are
insist on immediate action – don’t be put off – a life may be at risk
watch your child, even if they have already been checked by a doctor – ask your doctor what to look out for
go straight back to a doctor if your child gets worse
do not leave your child alone
What Are the Symptoms of Meningococcal Meningitis?
Symptoms of meningococcal meningitis may vary from case to case. The more common signs and symptoms include:
- General poor feeling
- Sudden high fever
- Severe, persistent headache
- Neck stiffness
- Nausea or vomiting
- Discomfort in bright lights
- Drowsiness or difficulty awakening
- Joint pain
- Confusion or other mental changes
- A reddish or purple skin rashis a very important sign to watch for. If it does not turn white when you press a glass against it, the rash may be a sign of blood poisoning. This is a medical emergency.
Other symptoms of meningitis or blood poisoning may include:
- Tense or bulging soft spot (in babies)
- High-pitched or moaning cry (in babies)
- Stiff, jerky movements or floppiness (in babies or toddlers)
- Fast breathing
- Lethargy or excessive sleepiness
- Blotchy skin, turning pale or blue
- Shivering, or cold hands and feet