With more cases of meningococcal disease being reported across Australia in recent months, including nineteen cases reported to date in 2018 in Western Australia, we thought it was timely to take a closer look at the disease and how it can best be prevented.
What is meningococcal disease?
Meningococcal disease is the result of a bacterial infection of the blood and/or membranes that line the spinal cord and brain.
The most common strains of meningococcal that are responsible for cases of infection are A, B, C, W, and Y and vaccinations for all these strains of the disease are available in Australia.
While the disease is relatively uncommon, and most people will recover completely with early antibiotic treatment, it can spread rapidly and become life-threatening for those infected.
Up to 10 per cent of cases result in a long-term disability, such as a loss of a limb or neurological damage and, in very rare cases, if left untreated, meningococcal infection can result in death.
Who is at risk?
While up to one-fifth of people carry meningococcal bacteria in the back of their nose and throat, only a small number of people will develop an infection from the meningococcal bacteria.
Those at greatest risk of contracting the disease include babies and children up to the age of 5 (due to their developing immune systems and tendency to put things in their mouths and share toys, food and drinks) and those in the 15-24 year age bracket (due to their social lifestyle, which generally includes more intimate activities such as kissing and sharing drinks).
Others at risk include those with a recent or current viral respiratory infection, smokers, those living in crowded living conditions and those with a weakened immune system.
What are the symptoms?
One of the tricky things about meningococcal is that it can appear in different forms, depending on which part of the body the bacteria invade (meningitis– affecting the brain and spinal cord; and septicaemia– affecting the blood; or a combination of both).
In addition, people can experience different symptoms. In general, some of the most common symptoms experienced include:
- Neck stiffness
- Muscle or joint pains
- Drowsiness or confusion
- Sensitivity to light
- Rapid breathing or panting
- Cold hands and feet
In the later stages of the disease, a pinprick or purple bruise-like rash can develop. It is important to get this type of rash checked immediately by your doctor or emergency department.
Meningococcal in Western Australia
There have been an increasing number of cases of meningococcal disease reported in Western Australia (WA) in recent years.
This year so far, we have seen 19 cases of meningococcal disease reported in WA, comprising 13 serogroup W, four serogroup B, and two serogroup Y.
Until 2016, the B strain was the most prevalent in WA, but this seems to be changing with the increasing emergence of the W and Y strains. Last year in WA, six people lost their lives as a result of meningococcal infection, with all of these deaths resulting from infection with the W strain.
What should I do if I suspect meningococcal disease?
If you or anyone you know is showing signs or symptoms consistent with meningococcal disease, seek medical attention immediately from your doctor or hospital.
If the rash appears, in conjunction with other symptoms, call an ambulance for urgent treatment.
How is meningococcal treated?
Meningococcal disease is treated with antibiotics. The earlier that treatment commences, the more likely it is that the patient will make a full recovery.
How can the disease be prevented?
Vaccination is the best way to prevent you and your family against meningococcal disease. Vaccinations are available in Australia for the five (5) main strains of the disease.
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 is available on prescription, and combination vaccines that protect against the ACWY serogroups are also available on prescription or provided free for young children and adolescents.
The free meningococcal ACWY vaccine catch up program for children aged between 1 and 4 years of age has been extended into 2019. If your child is within this age group and yet to be vaccinated, make sure you book in with your GP for the free vaccine before the end of the year.
It is recommended you consult directly with your doctor to discuss the best vaccination options for you and your family.
For more information on this topic, visit:
- Meningococcal Australia – http://www.meningococcal.org.au
- Meningitis Centre Australia – https://www.meningitis.com.au
- Healthy WA – http://healthywa.wa.gov.au/Health-conditions/Diabetes
- Department of Health, WA – http://www.diabetes.health.wa.gov.au/home/
- Australian Government Department of Health – https://campaigns.health.gov.au/immunisationfacts/meningococcal
- National Centre for Immunisation Research and Surveillance- http://www.ncirs.edu.au/assets/provider_resources/fact-sheets/meningococcal-vaccines-fact-sheet.pdf