Cute children reading a book on white bed

This rare, but potentially devastating infection can progress rapidly. Most children survive meningococcal disease, but if not diagnosed quickly it can lead to serious long-term disability or death within 24 hours.

Did you know?

  • Initial symptoms of meningococcal disease can be difficult to recognise, and can easily be mistaken for a common cold or virus
  • Meningococcal disease can cause serious disability or death within 24 hours
  • Babies and children (under five) are most at risk, followed by adolescents, with the highest incidence of meningococcal disease in babies less than 12 months of age
  • In Australia, meningococcal B, W and Y cause the majority of disease
A father buckling his young son in to a toddlers car seat.

What is it?

Meningococcal disease is caused by Neisseria meningitidis. There are multiple strains of meningococcal disease – globally, the most common are A, B, C, W, X and Y. Currently in Australia, strains B, W and Y cause the majority of disease.

Meningococcal disease can cause meningitis (inflammation around the brain) or septicaemia (infection of the blood), or a combination of both.

Whilst meningococcal disease is rare, it is potentially life threatening. Up to 10% of those infected may die and 1 in 5 may suffer serious long-term disabilities including brain damage, deafness or loss of limbs.1

What are the symptoms?

The symptoms of meningococcal disease can occur between 2 and 10 days after infection, and commonly appear after 3 to 4 days. Symptoms may initially be similar to a cold or flu (fever, runny nose, sore throat, feeling tired).  But meningococcal infection can progress rapidly, quick diagnosis and emergency treatment is very important.

The distinctive meningococcal rash is an advanced symptom of blood infection which may or may not occur. It’s important that you don’t wait for the purple rash to appear before seeking medical intervention.

Symptoms may vary and can include:

  • sudden onset of high fever
  • headache
  • neck stiffness
  • sensitivity to light
  • confusion
  • muscle aches
  • joint pain
  • cold hands
  • thirst
  • nausea
  • vomiting
  • a dark purple rash which does not disappear with gentle pressure on the skin.

This is not a full list of symptoms. Please speak to a healthcare professional if you have any concerns about meningococcal infection.

How is it spread?

Meningococcal bacteria live naturally in the back of the nose and throat in about 10% of people, without causing illness.2 These people are known as carriers.

The disease is spread by regular and close person-to-person contact with an infected person or carrier. The bacteria can't survive for more than a few seconds outside the body – it is passed from one person to another via respiratory (mucous or saliva) droplets, via activities like intimate kissing or close contact in a crowded household.

Who is at risk?

Most instances of meningococcal disease occur in babies and young children less than 5 years of age and in adolescents (15-19 years of age). The highest incidence of meningococcal disease is in babies less than 12 months old. 

During the early years of life, children have an immature immune system, meaning they are more likely to pick up a strain of meningococcal they are not immunised against or don’t have natural immunity to.

In adolescence, changes in social behaviour that result in close physical contact can lead to increased risk of meningococcal disease.

Some lifestyle and health factors can increase your risk, such as:

  • exposure to smokers
  • recent or current illness in the upper respiratory tract
  • conditions that weaken the immune system
  • living in crowded conditions
  • multiple intimate kissing partners.

Other people may be at risk of meningococcal disease. Please discuss your individual circumstances with a healthcare professional.

Prevention and Treatment options

  • Children and Adults

    Practicing good hygiene can help to protect against the spread of germs :

    • covering your mouth and nose when you cough or sneeze with a tissue or into your upper sleeve or elbow
    • wash your hands often with soap and water for at least 20 seconds
    • if no water is available use an alcohol-based hand-rub

    The risk of meningococcal disease can be reduced through immunisation.

    Early recognition and treatment of meningococcal disease offers the best chance of recovery. If you suspect that you, your child or a loved one may have contracted meningococcal disease, seek medical advice immediately Treatment will typically involve antibiotics given via injection in hospital. Close contacts may also receive antibiotics and possibly immunisation.

    Speak to a healthcare professional for more information on meningococcal disease treatment and prevention options.

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  • Travellers

    Some travellers may be at an increased risk of meningococcal A, C, W and Y disease depending on the area they are travelling to including but not limited to parts of sub-Saharan Africa, pilgrims attending the annual Hajj in Mecca, Saudi Arabia.

    It is important to plan ahead and see a healthcare professional at least 6 to 8 weeks before you travel to discuss prevention options and travel health.

References

  1. Australian Technical Advisory Group on Immunisation (ATAGI). Australian Immunisation Handbook, Australian Government Department of Health, Canberra, 2018, immunisationhandbook.health.gov.au.
  2. Christensen H et al. Lancet Infectious Diseases. 2010; 10:853–861

PM-AU-AVX-WCNT-190041 Date of GSK Approval: January 2021