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HealthInfo Canterbury

Meningococcal disease

Kiriuhi uakakā


Meningococcal disease can kill. Urgent treatment is essential.

If you think that you or your tamaiti (child) has the symptoms listed below, seek urgent medical attention.

Mother comforts a sick child with a fever

Meningococcal disease is a rare but very serious infection. It can lead to severe blood poisoning (septicaemia), bacterial meningitis and pneumonia (lung infection). These can happen individually but they most commonly happen together.

The bacteria that causes meningococcal disease lives in the back of the throat in about 15% of healthy people. Most of the time it doesn’t cause any problems. But sometimes the bacteria passes into the bloodstream causing meningococcal infection. Doctors don't know why some people get very ill and others don't.

It's spread in saliva droplets and secretions by coughing, sneezing and kissing. Sharing eating and drinking utensils can also spread the bacteria.

Risk factors for meningococcal disease

Anyone can get meningococcal disease but it's more common in:

Symptoms of meningococcal infection

Meningococcal disease can kill. If you think that you or your tamaiti (child) has the symptoms listed below, seek urgent medical attention.

Meningococcal disease symptoms typically develop very quickly over a few hours, but in some cases may develop more slowly over several days. A person with meningococcal disease may only have some of the symptoms. The symptoms don't develop in any particular order.

Common symptoms of meningococcal disease include:

Common symptoms of meningitis include:

A red or purple rash is common, but it doesn't always happen. One or two spots can appear anywhere on the body then many more appear, looking like rash or bruises. If you firmly press a glass on the spots and they don't fade, call 111 for urgent medical help.

Common symptoms in pēpi (babies) include:

Treating meningococcal disease

Injected high doses of antibiotics can treat meningococcal disease effectively. But the treatment must be started as soon as possible. It's very important to be aware of the symptoms and get urgent medical help immediately.

Preventing meningococcal disease

The Ministry of Health funds free vaccinations for groups of people with a high risk of meningococcal disease. This includes young people aged 13 to 25 entering communal accommodation such as boarding school hostels, tertiary education halls of residence, military barracks and prisons. They also recommend but don't fund vaccinations for other groups of people. See Meningococcal disease (including meningitis) – Prevention for details.

Several meningococcal vaccines are available in New Zealand. If you don't qualify for a free vaccine you can pay privately through your GP.

If you've had recent close contact with someone with meningococcal disease, your doctor may recommend preventative antibiotics. Your local public health will usually contact you about this. But check with your GP if you're concerned.

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Written by HealthInfo clinical advisers. Last reviewed May 2022.


Page reference: 585790

Review key: HIMGD-49770