Meningococcal disease

Can cause meningitis and sepsis

Meningococcal disease is a bacterial infection that can lead to serious illnesses including meningitis and sepsis. Early symptoms can be similar to influenza (the flu) but quickly get much worse. Meningococcal disease can be treated with antibiotics. Early treatment is very important. Don't wait – take action!

Key points

  1. Meningococcal disease can lead to serious infections including meningitis (inflammation of the brain membranes) and sepsis (blood poisoning or septicaemia). These illnesses can develop quickly and can cause serious disability or even death. 
  2. Common symptoms of meningococcal disease include sudden fever, a high fever, headache, sleepiness, joint and muscle pains. If you have these symptoms, get urgent medical attention.
  3. Those most at risk are babies and young children under 5 years, teenagers and young adults, people with weakened immune systems or living in shared accommodation or overcrowded housing.
  4. Meningococcal disease is treated with antibiotics – it cannot be treated at home.
  5. Vaccination against meningococcal disease protects against most, but not all types of meningococcal disease. 
If you or someone in your household is sick with one or more of the symptoms below, don't wait, take action immediately.  Ring a doctor, medical or after-hours centre or the free Healthline number (0800 611 116) right away, day or night. If it is an emergency, call 111.


Credits: Meningococcal disease Health Promotion Agency, NZ, 2013

What is meningococcal disease?

Meninogococcal disease is caused by meningococcal bacteria. There are several different types of meningococcal bacteria including A, B, C, Y and W. Most cases are caused by the B type. W type is the second most common and is the cause of the outbreak in Northland 2018/2019.

Usually, the bacteria sit harmlessly in the back of healthy people’s noses and throats and are not passed on to others. The illness happens when these bacteria enter the bloodstream to cause septicaemia (infection in your blood, also known as bacteremia) or meningitis (inflammation of the membrane covering your brain). Sometimes severe infection can also occur in your joints, throat, lungs or intestines.

What are the symptoms of meningococcal disease?

Meningococcal disease can look like influenza (the flu) in its early stages and be difficult to diagnose, but it quickly gets much worse. The symptoms and signs may not all show up at once, and the illness may develop gradually over a few days, or much more quickly – over a few hours. People with meningococcal disease may have some or all of the following symptoms:

Babies and children Teenagers and adults
  • fever
  • crying, unsettled, irritable
  • refusing drinks or feeds
  • vomiting
  • sleepy, floppy, harder to wake
  • stiff neck, dislike of bright lights
  • reluctant to walk
  • rash – purple or red spots or bruises.
  • fever
  • headache
  • vomiting
  • sleepy, confused, delirious, unconscious
  • joint pains, aching muscles
  • stiff neck
  • dislike of bright lights
  • painful, red hot swollen joint

Don’t wait – take action. If you or someone in your household is sick with one or more of the symptoms above, take action immediately. Ring a doctor, medical or after-hours centre or the free Healthline number (0800 611 116) right away, day or night. If it is an emergency, call 111.

How do you catch meningococcal disease?

Meningococcal disease bacteria live in the back of the nose and throat of about 1 in 10 healthy people, but only very rarely cause illness. The bacteria are spread by coughing, sneezing and intimate kissing. Very close or ongoing contact such as living in the same house is usually required for the bacteria to spread to other people.

Who is most at risk of meningococcal disease?

Meningococcal disease can affect anyone of any age, but those most at risk are:

  • babies under the age of 1 year
  • Māori and Pasifika children under 5 years old
  • teenagers and young adults
  • people living in overcrowded households
  • young people in hostels or residential centres
  • people exposed to tobacco smoke
  • people with a weakened immune system
  • anyone with another type of respiratory infection, such as the flu (influenza).

People can catch meningococcal disease at any time of the year, but it’s more common in winter and spring.

How is meningococcal disease diagnosed?

Meningococcal disease can be difficult to diagnose because the signs and symptoms are often similar to those of other illnesses, such as influenza (the flu). If your doctor suspects meningococcal disease, you will be referred to hospital where samples of your blood or cerebrospinal fluid (fluid near your spinal cord) will be collected and sent to the laboratory to check if an infection is present.

How is meningococcal disease treated?

The infection is treated with antibiotics to kill the bacteria. It is important that treatment starts as soon as possible – meningococcal disease often develops quickly over a few hours and can cause serious disability or even death. If your doctor suspects you have meningococcal disease, they will give you antibiotics right away. Antibiotics help reduce the risk of complications and death.

How is meningococcal disease prevented?

Meningococcal disease bacteria can be spread from person to person through by coughing, sneezing and kissing. Therefore, to prevent the spread, cover your nose or mouth when you sneeze or cough, and wash and dry your hands well. 

If you come into contact with someone who has meningococcal disease

If you come into close contact with someone who has meningococcal disease, you are at the highest risk of developing the infection during the 7 days after the person developed symptoms. The local public health service follows up people who have recently come into close contact with anyone who has developed meningococcal disease and may provide you with preventive antibiotics. The antibiotics stop the spread of the disease, but you may still be at risk of getting the infection; you still need to watch for any symptoms, and get medical help quickly.

Why is vaccination so important?

Vaccines against meningococcal disease are available. They protect against most, but not all types of meningococcal disease. None of the vaccines are long-lasting. Even if you have been vaccinated in the past, you may no longer be protected. In New Zealand, the meningococcal vaccines are not part of the New Zealand Immunisation Schedule and are not free, except for some people with weakened immune systems. Talk to your doctor or nurse about what vaccines are available and the cost of being vaccinated.

Learn more about meningococcal vaccine.

Learn more

Meningococcal disease section Auckland Regional Public Health Service, 2011
Meningococcal disease Ministry of Health NZ, 2017
Meningococcal disease Immunisation Advisory Centre NZ, 2017
Meningococcal disease - key points to remember Kidshealth NZ, 2016 
Meningococcal disease factsheet Immunisation Advisory Centre NZ, 2015

References

  1. Meningococcal disease Immunisation Handbook 2017, NZ
  2. Meningococcal disease - information for general practitioners and emergency departments Ministry of Health, NZ, 2018
Credits: Health Navigator Editorial Team . Reviewed By: Dr Katie Walland, Advanced Trainee, Infectious Diseases, Waikato Hospital Last reviewed: 17 Jan 2019