Meningococcal disease: Information for the public

There is currently an outbreak of Meningococcal W (MenW) in Central Australia affecting parts of the Northern Territory (NT), Queensland (QLD), South Australia (SA) and Western Australia (WA). More information on this outbreak can be located on the Meningococcal W Disease web page.

Page last updated: 20 December 2017

There are six different types of meningococcal disease and all are seen across Australia.

What is meningococcal disease?

Meningococcal disease is an uncommon but very serious infection that occurs when the meningococcal bacteria ‘invades’ the body from the throat or nose. It usually appears as meningitis or sepsis.

‘Meningitis’ means an inflammation of the protective coverings of the brain and spinal cord. ‘Sepsis’ means blood poisoning, which is a more widespread infection throughout the body.

Meningococcal disease is caused by bacteria called ‘meningococci’. There are a number of different types of meningococci. Meningococcal W is a type of meningococcal disease.

How serious is meningococcal disease?

Although meningococcal disease is uncommon, it is a very serious disease. The infection can develop very quickly and can be fatal in 5-10 per cent of cases. Most people make a complete recovery if the infection is diagnosed early and antibiotic treatment commenced promptly. The early signs of the disease can look like other milder illnesses, so it is sometimes hard to diagnose early. About a quarter of the people who recover from meningococcal disease experience some after-effects of the infection. Most of these problems get better with time. Some of the more common after-effects include:

  • headaches
  • 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.

Where do meningococci come from?

Meningococci are common bacteria and around 10-20 per cent of people carry them at the back of the nose and throat without showing any illness or symptoms. Carriers are more often young adults and less often children and older people. Meningococci are only found in people and never in animals or the general environment.

What is a meningococcal ‘carrier’?

Almost all adults and children can carry these bacteria and most will not get sick with meningococcal disease. People become carriers without knowing they have caught the bacteria and will get rid of it naturally, without treatment, after a few weeks or months.

Who catches meningococcal disease?

Some people who catch the bacteria become sick. It is not usually clear why a particular person becomes sick instead of just becoming a carrier.

Meningococcal disease can occur at any age, but babies and children less than five years of age are most at risk. Teenagers and young adults aged 15–24 years are also at increased risk.

For people who become sick the average time between being infected and becoming ill is about three to five days, but can be up to seven days. Rarely, small outbreaks with more than one person can happen, but usually each case is unrelated to any others.

What are the symptoms?

Meningococcal disease is an emergency. If you think a person has symptoms that suggest meningococcal disease, contact your doctor immediately, call triple zero (000) for an ambulance or go to the nearest hospital emergency department.

Someone with meningococcal disease will become very ill, usually feeling sicker than they have ever felt before. There are many symptoms of meningococcal disease, although a few are especially important. Most cases may show only a few of these symptoms and they hardly ever all happen at once. Signs and symptoms sometimes appear very quickly and people with meningococcal disease can get much worse within a few hours.

The symptoms of meningococcal disease may include:

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In infants and young children:

  • fever
  • disinterest in feeding or lack of appetite
  • leg pain, cold legs and hands
  • unusual skin colour
  • irritability / fretfulness
  • extreme tiredness or floppiness
  • dislike of being handled
  • vomiting and / or diarrhoea
  • turning away from light
  • drowsiness
  • convulsions, fits or twitching
  • rash of red-purple pinprick spots or larger bruises.

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) or rash are important signs.

In older children and adults:

  • headache
  • photophobia (dislike of bright lights)
  • fever
  • leg pain, cold extremities
  • unusual skin colour
  • vomiting and / or diarrhoea
  • neck stiffness or aching
  • backache
  • joint pains, sore muscles, cold hands and leg pain
  • general malaise, off food
  • drowsiness, confusion
  • rash of red-purple pinprick spots or larger bruises.

In meningococcal septicaemia a rash is a very important, but late sign. The rash can appear anywhere on the body and may vary from just one or a few small spots, especially early on, to later covering large areas of the skin. Absence of the rash does not exclude meningococcal disease.

You know your family and friends better than anybody else. If somebody close to you has some of these signs and appears to you to be much sicker than usual, seek medical help immediately. Children and young adults should not be left alone if they are sick. Early diagnosis and treatment is vital.

If you are sent home by the doctor or hospital, it is important to return promptly for further assessment if symptoms get worse or do not improve in the time suggested by the doctor.

How is meningococcal disease spread?

The disease is difficult to spread. The bacteria cannot live outside a human body and they cannot be picked up from surfaces, water supplies, swimming pools, buildings, food, drinks, pets or other animals.

Spread of the bacteria is associated with regular close, prolonged and intimate contact.

The bacteria are passed between people in the secretions of fluid from the back of the nose and throat. This generally requires close and prolonged contact with a person carrying the bacteria, who is usually completely well. Meningococcal bacteria are not easily spread by sharing drinks, food or cigarettes.

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If a case of meningococcal disease occurs some people are at greater risk of infection than usual, although their overall level of risk remains very low. This includes:

  •  people who live in the same household,
  • sexual and other intimate contacts, and
  • close contacts in residential accommodation, such as student halls of residence and military camps.

How is meningococcal disease treated?

If a case of meningococcal meningitis or sepsis is suspected, an antibiotic is given immediately by injection and the patient is admitted to hospital.

Can meningococcal disease be prevented?

Six types of meningococcal bacteria (A, B, C, W, X and Y) account for most cases of meningitis or sepsis due to meningococcal bacteria. Vaccines are available in Australia for types A, B, C, W and Y meningococcal disease The Australian Immunisation Handbook 10th Edition, online version provides current guidance on meningococcal immunisation.

The vaccines currently available are:

  • Meningococcal C conjugate vaccines (MenCCV) - available through the National Immunisation Program. Recommended for all children at 12 months of age.
  • Meningococcal B vaccine (MenBV) - available on private script. Recommended for infants and young children, adolescents, young adults living in close quarters, some laboratory personnel and individuals with certain medical conditions.
  • Meningococcal quadrivalent vaccines (4vMenCV and 4vMenPV) protect against types A, C, W and Y. These are available on private script. Recommended for occupational exposures, travel and certain medical conditions. This can also be offered to those who wish to protect themselves or their family from these types of meningococcal disease. Some states offer these.
    • Due to the current outbreak of MenW in central Australia, four states and territories have started a meningococcal ACWY vaccination program for individuals in affected communities. Further information on what each state is doing can be found in the links below:
  • In response to the overall rise in the number of MenW cases since 2013, five states have started time limited state-based meningococcal ACWY vaccination programs. The programs target children aged 15-19 years, with NSW targeting 17-18 year olds.

More information on what each state is doing, and who is eligible for a free vaccination, can be found in the links below:

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What happens when a case occurs?

Public health authorities identify very close contacts of the infected person and offer them clearance antibiotics to help prevent further spread of infection. These people are members of the same household, intimate contacts (e.g. boyfriends and girlfriends), and anyone who has spent a lot of time in the same dwelling as the infected person in the seven days before they became unwell. Other contacts, such as friends and work colleagues, do not usually need clearance antibiotics.

Whenever an infection occurs, public health authorities will advise what should be done, and will make sure all close contacts are treated with the right antibiotics to stop the infection spreading.

Once a person has recovered from meningococcal disease they will not be infectious and can safely return to childcare, school, or work. There are no restrictions on contacts of an infected person attending work, school or childcare, whether or not it is recommended that they take clearance antibiotics.

Antibiotics are given to close contacts to eliminate the bacteria from the throat and prevent the bacteria from being transmitted to others, just in case the contact may be an innocent carrier of the strain that caused illness. Clearance antibiotics are different to the antibiotics used to treat the infection and people who receive clearance antibiotics are still at some risk of developing the disease and therefore need to remain alert for any signs and symptoms.

What is the role of Health Departments with the recent MenW outbreak?

The Department of Health, in collaboration with the states and territories, closely monitors the incidence of invasive meningococcal disease. The Chief Medical Officer of Australia has established a dedicated incident management team with a focus on examining current epidemiology and co-ordinating responses to MenW at a national level.

More information

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