Meningococcal Disease

Page last updated: 20 April 2015

Meningococcal disease is a life-threatening illness caused by a number of different strains of the bacterium Neisseria meningitidis. This bacterium, spread through coughing, sneezing or close contact with infected people, can cause septicaemia (blood poisoning) and meningitis (inflammation of the membranes around the brain and spinal cord).

Up to one in 10 patients with invasive meningococcal disease in Australia dies. Of those who survive, one in 30 has severe skin scarring or loss of limbs, and one in 30 has severe brain damage.

Causes

The Neisseria meningitidis bacterium is commonly found in the upper respiratory tract (nose, throat and windpipe) of infected people, and is spread between people through respiratory and throat secretions.

Symptoms

It takes between one and 10 days (commonly three-four days) for symptoms of meningococcal meningitis to show after infection. These symptoms, which may not all be present at once, include: high fever, headache, neck stiffness, nausea, vomiting, sensitivity to light, confusion, irritability, and drowsiness.

People with meningococcal disease can become extremely unwell very quickly. As well as causing meningitis and septicaemia – often simultaneously – meningococcal disease can lead to pneumonia (lung infection), septic arthritis, and conjunctivitis (eye infection).

Prevention

Globally there are 13 strains of meningococcal disease, the most common being A, B, C, W135 and Y. The two most common strains of meningococcal disease in Australia are B and C. The meningococcal B vaccine BexseroŽ is available through purchase on the private market. While infection by strains A, W135 and Y is less common in Australia, vaccination is important in older children and adults who are travelling overseas. There are vaccines available on prescription for meningococcal ACWY and meningococcal B.

In Australia, meningococcal infections caused by strain B & C are vaccine preventable in all age groups, including babies and young children. The highest rate of meningococcal disease occurs in children under five years of age, although this has decreased since the introduction of the free meningococcal C vaccine under the National Immunisation Program.

Meningococcal C vaccination is recommended as part of routine childhood immunisation. The meningococcal C vaccine is listed on the National Immunisation Program Schedule. To receive meningococcal C immunisation, visit your local doctor or immunisation provider. It is important to note that the vaccine is provided at no cost, although a consultation fee may apply.

Vaccination for meningococcal C is given at 12 months of age in combination with the Haemophilus influenzae type b (Hib) vaccine. The addition of this combined vaccine reduces the number of injections needed at the 12-month schedule point from three to two.

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