Although the national incidence of meningococcal disease in Australia has decreased since the introduction of the meningococcal C (MenC) vaccine to the National Immunisation Program (NIP) in 2003, since 2014, notifications of invasive meningococcal disease have actually increased, with numbers during 2017 the highest they’ve been since 2006.
Meningococcal disease is deadly – it is unpredictable, develops rapidly, and it can cause death within a few hours, so it’s important that everyone, particularly those who are at risk or have children who are at risk, are familiar with the disease. So what are the common meningococcal disease symptoms and what treatment options are available?
What Is Meningococcal Disease?
Meningococcal disease is caused by a bacterium known as Neisseria meningitides, and it is divided into a number of strains designated by the letters A, B, C, W and Y. The most common strain of the bacterium causing disease in a population often changes over time, however, in Australia, vaccinations for all of these are available from your GP.
Some people actually have meningococcal bacteria living naturally in their nose and throat which does not cause illness, however, in a small number of people, a dangerous strain can move through the lining of the throat, enter the bloodstream, and cause ‘invasive meningococcal disease’.
Meningococcal disease can be hard to identify because it can appear in several different forms, as either a blood infection called septicaemia or as an infection of the membranes covering the brain and spinal cord, which is known as meningitis.
These infections can develop very quickly and can cause serious illness or death, which is why early diagnosis and the treatment of meningococcal disease with antibiotics as soon as possible is vital.
Who Is At Risk of Catching The Disease?
Meningococcal disease can strike anyone, anywhere, at any time, however, those most at risk are babies and children up to five years of age, and teenagers and young adults from 15 to 24 years.
Young children account for two-thirds of cases due to their less mature immune systems and the fact that they have a tendency to put things in their mouths and share food, drinks and toys. Meningococcal infections occur in teenagers and young adults primarily because of their socially interactive lifestyle – they are more likely to partake in intimate activities like kissing and sharing drinks. However, other high-risk groups also include unimmunised people who have close contact with those who have the disease and people who have high-risk conditions like HIV or a poorly functioning spleen.
Winter and early spring are higher risk periods for contracting the disease because other viruses are prevalent during these times that can weaken the body’s natural immune system, hence making it easier for meningococcal disease to attack the body.
How Is The Disease Spread?
Meningococcal bacteria are only found in humans, and people can’t catch meningococcal disease from animals or the environment. The bacteria are also not easily spread from person to person – in fact, the bacteria do not survive well outside of the human body for more than a few seconds.
Bacteria are passed between people via the secretions at the back of the throat and nose, however, research has shown that low levels of salivary contact are unlikely to transmit the disease (in fact, saliva has been shown to slow the growth of the bacteria).
Transmission of meningococcal disease requires close and prolonged contact with an infected person and examples of this include living in the same household with them or via deep, intimate kissing with someone who is infected.
What Are Its Signs and Symptoms?
There are two different sets of meningococcal disease symptoms and they depend on whether the disease takes the form of meningitis or of septicaemia. Common symptoms of both include fever, dizziness, tiredness, a sore throat and confusion or disorientation, and there also noticeable symptoms that are specific to the type of meningococcal disease (meningitis or septicaemia) contracted.
The symptoms of meningococcal meningitis can include:
- Severe headache
- A stiff or painful neck
- Sensitivity to light
- Twitching or convulsions
The symptoms of meningococcal septicaemia can include:
- Nausea or vomiting
- Cold shivers
- Cold hands and feet
- Rapid breathing
- Pale, grey or blotchy skin
- Severe pain in the joints, muscles, chest or abdomen
- In the later stages, a distinctive pinprick or purple bruise-like rash
Specific meningococcal infection symptoms in babies and young children can also include:
- Refusal to feed
- Grunting or moaning
- A high pitched cry
- Extreme tiredness or floppiness
- A bulging fontanelle (the soft spot on the top of the head)
What Are The Treatment Options?
Meningococcal disease is a medical emergency so early diagnosis and treatment is vital. It’s important not to wait until a rash appears before seeking treatment, as the rash signifies a critical stage of the disease. The disease is normally diagnosed by taking samples of blood and fluid from around the spinal chord. These are tested at a lab, which enables the type of bacteria causing the infection to the determined.
If confirmed, the treatment of meningococcal disease involves an intravenous antibiotic (normally penicillin) and people who have contracted the disease may require admission into a hospital’s intensive care unit.
Most people in contact with someone who has been diagnosed (like school or work friends) won’t need antibiotics, however people who have had very close contact (like a partner or people who live in the same household) will be advised to take a short course of ‘clearance’ antibiotics in accordance with Australian guidelines.
How Can People Be Protected Against The Disease?
The best protection against meningococcal bacteria is immunisation, and the type and administration of them depend on a variety of factors including the relevant strain protection required, where you live in Australia, and a patient’s risk factors. However, your doctor is the best person to advise you on your family’s immunisation requirements.
Need more advice about meningococcal vaccinations? Contact us today on (07) 3711 2880 to book your professional consultation.