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HealthInfo Waitaha 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 feverMeningococcal 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 cause meningococcal disease live in the back of the throat in about 15% of healthy people. Most of the time this doesn't cause any problems. But sometimes the bacteria passes into the bloodstream causing meningococcal infection. Doctors do not know why some people get very ill and others do not.

There are several types of meningococcal bacteria, including A, B, C, Y and W. Most cases of illness are caused by the B type.

Meningococcal disease is 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 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 do not 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 do not fade, call 111 for urgent medical help.

Common symptoms in pēpi 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

Several meningococcal vaccines are available in New Zealand to provide protection against the different types of meningococcal bacteria.

The meningococcal B vaccine is offered to all children under 5 years as part of the National Immunisation Schedule.

Free vaccinations are available 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 do not fund vaccinations for other groups of people. See Immunisation against meningococcal disease for details.

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 general practice team if you're concerned.

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Written by HealthInfo clinical advisers. Last reviewed May 2022.


Page reference: 585790

Review key: HIMGD-49770