Meningitis cases on the rise

An increase in the number of people developing bacterial meningitis has health authorities around the country on high alert.

Of particular concern at the moment, is the presence of a previously rare strain of meningitis called meningococcal W (MenW). Meningococcal disease causes inflammation of brain membranes and septicaemia and is life threatening.

The number of MenW cases has doubled in New Zealand since 2017 from 12 to 24. Six people have died from the disease so far this year.

MenW is a particularly strong strain of meningococcal disease and especially difficult to diagnose compared to other strains. The disease is very fast moving and can cause death or serious disability within hours of someone getting it.

The Ministry of Health has asked hospital emergency departments and GPs to be on high alert for suspicious symptoms.

In the early 2000s, New Zealand had a meningococcal B epidemic, resulting in a nationwide vaccination programme. The Government is currently funding meningitis vaccinations, in Northland, against new strains of meningococcal disease.

What are the symptoms of meningitis?

Meningitis can be very difficult to diagnose because the symptoms are often similar to a cold or flu. It can develop very quickly so it’s crucial to seek medical help immediately if you develop meningitis symptoms. The earlier it’s caught, the better. It can be treated with antibiotics.

Symptoms vary and can include some of all of the following:

  • fever
  • headache
  • vomiting
  • stiff neck
  • rash
  • muscle/joint aches and pains
  • sensitivity to light
  • sleepiness/confusion
  • refusal to eat (in infants)
  • stomach pain/gastrointestinal symptoms can appear in MenW cases.

Who is at high risk of meningitis?

Anyone can develop meningococcal disease, but it’s more common in babies, young children, teenagers and young adults. People with weakened immune systems, people who live in houses with many people, like in shared accommodation such as boarding schools and university hostels, and those who have been in close contact with somebody who develops the disease are all at high risk.

MenW affects people of all ages.

If you notice any symptoms of meningococcal disease or have any concerns, contact your healthcare provider immediately or dial 111.