NSW Health has issued a health warning to the community to stay alert for symptoms of Meningococcal disease and to seek medical help immediately if they appear.

Due to the number of cases reported in 2022 and the seriousness of the illness, it's important to provide an explainer on what Meningococcal disease is, what the signs and symptoms are, and how to treat and prevent people from getting it.

Just remember that if you need support or just someone to talk to, our Sonder support team is available 24/7 to chat whenever you need it.

What is Meningococcal disease?

Meningococcal disease is a serious illness caused by a bacterium called Neisseria meningitidis, which is divided into 13 different strains or 'serogroups' designated by letters of the alphabet.

While Meningococcal disease is uncommon and not easily spread, it is a fast-acting illness that can be fatal if not treated immediately (between five to 10 per cent of patients with the illness die). Meningococcal infection can occur in all age groups and cause serious complications, including:

  • Meningitis – An infection of the covering of the brain and spinal cord

  • Septicemia – Infection of the blood

  • Infections in other parts of the body, such as in the joints.

The bacterium that causes Meningococcal disease lives naturally in the back of the nose and throat of about 10 per cent of the population without causing illness. These people are known as 'carriers' and can pass the disease to someone else.

How is it spread?

Meningococcal disease is difficult to spread and can only be passed from person to person through close, prolonged contact with someone carrying the disease, or intimate contact with infected secretions from the back of the nose and throat (such as deep kissing).

Meningococcal bacteria is only found in humans and can't live for more than a few seconds outside of the human body, and it's not possible to catch the disease from animals or the environment.

Signs and symptoms

The main symptoms of Meningococcal disease are:

  • Rash of red or purple pinprick spots, or larger bruise-like areas, that does not turn skin-coloured when you press on it with a finger or the side of a clear drinking glass

  • Fever

  • Headache

  • Neck stiffness

  • Light sensitivity

  • Nausea or vomiting

  • Diarrhoea

  • Drowsiness and confusion

  • Difficulty walking or talking.

In babies and young children, other signs and symptoms can include:

  • Refusing food

  • Being fretful and irritable

  • Excessively tired and floppy

  • Frequent fits or are twitchy

  • High moaning cries.

If you or someone you know are showing symptoms of Meningococcal disease, seek medical help immediately by contacting Triple Zero (000). The early stages of the illness can appear to be like other less serious illnesses and can be difficult to diagnose. Our Sonder support team can help direct you to the nearest hospital or doctor if you need assistance.

Early diagnosis of Meningococcal disease is very important. If the illness is suspected, blood samples and fluid around the spinal cord are taken and sent to a laboratory to be tested for the presence of meningococcal bacteria.

Treatment and prevention

People with Meningococcal disease need urgent treatment with intravenous antibiotics (usually penicillin) in hospital and may require intensive care support. The sooner people receive treatment, the less long damage the disease may cause, which can include:

  • Headaches

  • Skin scarring

  • Limb deformity

  • Deafness in one or both ears

  • Tinnitus (ringing in the ears)

  • Blurring and double vision

  • Aches and stiffness in the joints

  • Learning difficulties

  • Permanent brain damage

Vaccination is the best protection against Meningococcal disease. There are currently two vaccines available:

  • Meningococcal ACWY (Men ACWY) vaccine, which provides protection against serogroups A, C, W and Y.

  • Meningococcal B (Men B) vaccine, which protects against some strains of meningococcal serogroup B.

It's important to note that the vaccine is not 100% effective, so seek medical help immediately if symptoms develop, even if you've been vaccinated.

Related reading:

If you have any questions or need extra support, we're here to help you anytime in any language. Simply start a chat with us via the home screen of the Sonder app.

Image credit: MART PRODUCTION at Pexels

All content is created and published for informational purposes only. It is not intended to be a substitute for professional advice. Always seek the guidance of a qualified health professional.

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