Meningococcal Disease

Meningococcal Disease

Babies and children with meningococcal disease can get sick very quickly. Take your child to a doctor urgently if they appear very ill, especially if there is a rash.

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Key points to remember about meningococcal disease

  • meningococcal disease is a bacterial infection - it causes severe illness
  • babies and children with meningococcal disease can get sick very quickly
  • meningococcal disease can be difficult to diagnose in its early stages
  • take your child to a doctor urgently if they appear very ill, especially if there is a rash
  • take your child back to your doctor urgently if they get worse
  • know about the early symptoms of meningococcal disease and teach teenagers about these too
  • know where to seek help after hours and how to get there
  • early treatment can save lives

What is meningococcal disease?

Meningococcal disease is an infection caused by a bacteria, and can lead to 2 very serious illnesses:

  • meningitis (an infection of membranes that cover the brain)
  • septicaemia (a serious infection in the blood)

Some children will have both meningitis and septicaemia, others will have one or the other.

There are several different types of meningococcal bacteria including A, B, C, Y and W.

  • most cases in New Zealand are caused by group B
  • the next most common groups are W, Y and C
  • there have previously been outbreaks of meningococcal disease due to group A

How common is meningococcal disease?

Between 2013 and 2017, there were between 45 and 112 cases of meningococcal disease each year in New Zealand.

It's more common in winter and spring. The highest rates of meningococcal disease occur in children aged under 5 years and young people aged 15 to 19 years. But, people of any age can be affected.

How is meningococcal disease spread?

Meningococcal disease can easily spread from person to person.

The bacteria can spread through close contact such as:

  • living in the same household
  • coughing and sneezing
  • kissing, sharing food and drink

Why do only some people exposed to meningococcal bacteria get sick?

Some people will carry meningococcal bacteria in their nose and throat without getting sick.

Scientists and health professionals don't yet know why some people who come into contact with meningococcal bacteria get sick and others don't.

Who is most at risk of catching meningococcal disease?

  • meningococcal disease can affect anyone, but those under 20 (and particularly babies under one and children under 5) are at greatest risk
  • teenagers and young adults who live in shared accommodation (like flats and university halls of residence) are also at increased risk

What are the signs and symptoms of meningococcal disease?

Symptoms may appear in any order and some may not appear at all.

In the early stages of meningococcal disease, symptoms may seem similar to those of the flu or any other viral infection. The disease can develop very quickly and is difficult to diagnose.

It's important to be aware of the symptoms so you can get medical help straightaway - whether it's day or night.

Meningococcal disease can be treated with antibiotics but early treatment is very important.

Know about the early symptoms of meningococcal disease and take action if you are concerned.

Get urgent medical help if your child has one or more of the symptoms below.

Symptoms in a baby or child who has meningococcal disease

  • have a fever (may also have cool hands and feet, or shivering)
  • be crying or unsettled
  • refuse drinks or feeds
  • vomit
  • be sleepy or floppy or harder to wake
  • dislike bright lights
  • have a stiff neck
  • have a bulging fontanelle (the soft area on the top of a baby's head)
  • have red or purple spots or bruises on the skin (see the photos but be aware only 1 in 3 children with meningococcal disease have a rash)

Photo of a child in hospital with meningococcal rash

An ear with meningoccal rash on an ear

Symptoms in an older child or adult who has meningococcal disease

  • have a fever or a headache
  • have a stiff neck
  • have joint pain and aching muscles
  • vomit
  • be sleepy, confused, delirious or unconscious
  • dislike bright lights
  • have red or purple spots or bruises on the skin (see the photos above but be aware only 1 in 3 children and adults with meningococcal disease have a rash)

When should I seek help for my child's meningococcal disease?

Don't wait - take action.

If your child has one or more of the symptoms of meningococcal disease:

  • act immediately
  • ring a doctor, after hours medical centre or Healthline (0800 611 116) right away - whether it is night or day
  • if it is an emergency, call 111 within New Zealand and ask for an ambulance (use the appropriate emergency number in other countries)
  • say what the symptoms are
  • insist on immediate action - don't be put off - a life may be at risk
  • watch your child, even if they have already been checked by a doctor - ask your doctor what to look out for
  • go straight back to a doctor if your child gets worse
  • do not leave your child alone

Don't wait, take action (te Reo Māori)

Don't wait, take action (English)

Don't wait, take action (Samoan)

Don't wait, take action (Tongan)

What treatments are available for meningococcal disease?

Early treatment of meningococcal disease with antibiotics is very important because it can save lives and reduce the effects of the disease.

Preventing meningococcal disease in close contacts

Once the healthcare team diagnose meningococcal disease in someone, they give antibiotics to that person's close contacts. This treatment clears the organism from their throat and prevents the spread of meningococcal disease from person to person.

Immunisation for meningococcal disease

Some meningococcal vaccines are free for some children and young people. Talk to your doctor.

Several vaccines are available which protect against different groups of meningococcal disease - A, B, C, Y and W. Meningococcal immunisation is not part of the regular childhood immunisations.

Groups of people at highest risk of getting meningococcal disease are babies and children under 5 years and teens and young adults 13 to 25 years. 

For some groups of people, some meningococcal vaccines are free.

One of the vaccines is recommended and funded for young people from 13 to 25 years if they will be living in some types of communal accommodation. Ask your family doctor about this.

You can also pay for meningococcal vaccines through your family doctor.

For more information about meningococcal immunisation please talk with your doctor.

Mark and Lisa's experience of meningococcal C disease in their daughter Letitia

You can watch a video of a family's experience of meningococcal C disease. In the 5 hours between waking at 3am with a headache and 8am when her family had gathered at Palmerston North Hospital, 18-year-old Letitia (Tesh) Gallagher's body had battled meningococcal C disease and lost.

Watch the video about a family's experience of meningococcal C disease

A photo of a teenage girl

Are there complications of meningococcal disease?

For every 100 people who get the disease, 5 to 10 will die. Another 20 are likely to be left with some degree of serious disability, such as brain damage, deafness, loss of limbs or damaged skin. Some are also left with learning or behavioural difficulties.

While New Zealand has had a high rate of meningococcal disease, it has had a low death rate compared to other countries. This is partly due to high awareness of the disease and the importance of seeking urgent medical attention, and to early treatment.

Between 2013 and 2017, there were between 2 and 9 deaths from meningococcal disease each year in New Zealand.

Ripu's own experience of surviving meningococcal disease

Ripu Bhatia was a 21-year-old university student living in Sydney when he had his arms and legs amputated after getting meningococcal disease. You can read Ripu's story at the Stuff website.

Read Ripu's story

Acknowledgements

This content has been produced by the Paediatric Society of New Zealand in collaboration with the Immunisation Team, Ministry of Health.

Photo of a child's chest with a meningococcal rash reproduced from DermNet's meningococcal disease page.

Photo of a meningococcal rash on and around a child's ear is by D. Scott Smith, MD, taken at Stanford University Hospital.

This page last reviewed 02 May 2022.

Call Healthline on 0800 611 116 any time of the day or night for free health advice when you need it