Understanding Meningococcal Disease

Neisseria meningitidisMeningococcal disease may be two of the scariest words known to parents, but recognising the signs can help to keep your child safe, explains Georgia Radinger.

Meningococcal disease is a rare but deadly bacterial infection that can cause death within hours of the first symptoms. Although the disease can strike anyone, babies and children up to the age of five are most at risk due to their immature immune systems. Also at higher risk of developing the disease are young people between the ages of 15 and 24.

Fortunately the majority of parents will never encounter this awful disease, but being aware of the symptoms and having the confidence to seek medical treatment in the early stages can be the difference between a full recovery and a fatality.

The disease is caused by bacteria that live naturally in the throat, and between 10 and 20 per cent of people will be carrying the bacteria at any one time without becoming ill. The bacteria are spread by respiratory droplets transmitted by sneezing, coughing, intimate kissing, and perhaps sharing food and drinks.

Recognising the disease in the early stages is critical, but this can be difficult because early symptoms resemble those of common ailments such as gastro or the flu. Parents and carers need to trust their instincts if they feel something isn’t right. 

There are two types of meningococcal disease: meningitis, which attacks the lining of the spinal cord and brain, and the more deadly septicaemia, which causes blood poisoning. 

Symptoms for meningococcal meningitis can include a severe headache, sensitivity to light, neck pain, nausea/vomiting and fatigue.

Symptoms for meningococcal septicaemia can include sudden, severe pain in arms, legs, joints or stomach, shivering, chills, cold hands and/or feet, fatigue, nausea/vomiting, fever and a rash that can start off looking like a pimple or faint pinpricks, and develop into purple blotches.

Symptoms can differ and only a few symptoms may appear. A child with meningococcal disease will get ill quickly and worsen rapidly, and if a rash appears, the situation is critical. For this reason, it’s very important that parents monitor their child closely when they are unwell, including during the night, and don’t wait for a rash to appear before seeking medical advice.

The disease has many different strains, with a vaccine available for the deadliest C strain. This vaccine was offered free from 2003 to 2007 to all children who turned between one and 19 in 2003, and is now part of the National Immunisation Program for infants at 12 months old. This routine vaccination has effectively reduced the incidence of C-strain meningococcal disease in Australia, with only 1.4 cases per 100,000 of the population reported in 2008.

Unfortunately there is no vaccine available for the B strain, and there are still between 300 and 400 B-strain cases in Australia each year. Approximately 70 per cent of patients make a full recovery, 20 per cent have health issues or disabilities and 10 per cent die.

It is reasonable to suspect meningococcal disease if your child has a few of the above symptoms and:

  • the symptoms worsen quickly (within hours);
  • the symptoms are more severe or more unusual and worsen faster than you would normally expect from flu, gastro or a virus;
  • your gut feeling is that your child is very ill.

Take your child immediately to the nearest doctor or hospital. Insist on seeing a doctor or nurse straight away and be very specific and articulate in detailing your child’s symptoms, ensuring you mention that you strongly suspect meningococcal disease.

If meningococcal disease is a reasonable suspicion, intravenous antibiotics should be given to your child as soon as possible. Medical staff are not supposed to wait for test results before giving treatment, due to how quickly patients can deteriorate.

With continued vaccination, awareness and vigilance, parents can help ensure their child makes a full recovery.



Georgia Radinger is the Education Program Coordinator at The Amanda Young Foundation, which raises awareness of meningococcal disease and supports research into the disease.




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