Meningococcal disease is contagious. It is transmitted through close and prolonged contact with mucus from an infected person. Symptoms include a rash and fever. Meningococcal can affect people of all ages, but can be prevented with vaccination. Meningococcal disease is treated with antibiotics.
What is meningococcal disease?
Meningococcal disease is caused by strains of the bacterium called Neisseria meningitidis. It is transmitted through close and prolonged contact with mucus from an infected person.
The subtypes are given different letters of the alphabet. The main types seen in Australia are Meningococcus B, W and Y.
Meningococcal disease is a rare, but serious and life-threatening, infection. Symptoms appear suddenly and people can die very quickly without medical help.
Long-term effects of the disease include:
- loss of arms and legs
- deformed arms and legs
- aches and stiffness in the joints
- scars on the skin
- ringing in the ears (tinnitus)
- deafness in one or both ears
- kidney or liver failure
- blurred or double vision
- learning difficulties.
Meningococcal disease has a range of symptoms, depending on its severity. Babies and young children can have different symptoms to older children and adults.
If you have any of the following symptoms, you should seek urgent medical treatment:
- rash of red or purple pinprick spots, or larger bruise-like areas
- neck stiffness
- discomfort when you look at bright light
- nausea or vomiting
- feeling very, very sick.
Other possible symptoms include:
- loss of appetite or refusing to feed (in young children)
- irritability or fretfulness
- extreme tiredness or floppiness (in young children)
- aching or sore muscles
- painful or swollen joints
- difficulty walking, and maybe collapsing
- grunting or moaning
- difficulty talking
- having fits or twitching (in young children).
Who is at risk
Meningococcal disease can affect people of any age. The following people have a higher risk of being infected:
- infants and young children under the age of two
- Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people aged 2 months to 19 years
- teenagers and young adults aged 15 to 19 years old
- teenagers and young adults aged 15 to 24 years living together in close quarters, such as dormitories and military barracks
- people with medical conditions that increase their risk of invasive meningococcal disease
- people living with patients who have meningococcal disease
- teenagers and young adults aged 15 to 24 years who are exposed to cigarette smoke
- travellers to countries with high rates of meningococcal disease
- laboratory workers who frequently handle Neisseria meningitidis.
Speak to your doctor or vaccination provider for advice or refer to the meningococcal recommendations in the Australian Immunisation Handbook for more information and list of medical conditions.
How it spreads
Meningococcal disease spreads when people are in very close contact with each other for a long time – for example, kissing intimately or living in the same household.
The bacteria can only live outside of the body for a few seconds, so you can’t catch meningococcal disease from casual contact or from the environment. The bacteria do not spread easily by sharing food or drinks.
Between 10% and 20% of people carry the bacteria in their nose or throat without showing any signs of illness.
Meningococcal disease can be prevented with vaccination. There are different types of meningococcal bacteria. Meningococcal disease is most commonly caused by serogroups A, B, C, W and Y. Different vaccines are needed to protect against the different types of meningococcal disease, including vaccines for meningococcal B and combination vaccine for meningococcal ACWY. There is also a separate vaccine for meningococcal C.
If you have close contact with someone who has meningococcal disease, your doctor may give you antibiotics to prevent you getting infected.
Find out more about getting vaccinated against meningococcal disease.
Early diagnosis of meningococcal disease is very important so treatment can start quickly. It is sometimes difficult to diagnose early because the early symptoms of meningococcal disease can be similar to other illnesses.
Seek medical help immediately if you think you or one of your family members has meningococcal disease. If necessary, call an ambulance or go to the emergency department of your local hospital.
Your doctor can diagnose meningococcal disease by:
- asking about your symptoms
- taking a blood, spinal or joint fluid sample for testing.
If you have meningococcal disease your doctor may be required to notify your state or territory health department.
Meningococcal disease is treated with antibiotics, usually in hospital. Some people will need treatment in intensive care.