Central Australia, including parts of Queensland, South Australia, the Northern Territory and Western Australia are currently experiencing a meningococcal disease outbreak.
In response to this, some states and territories have made changes to their vaccination programs.
Why have changes been made? Currently, there are 13 different types of meningococcal bacteria, and until recently, more than 90% of infections were caused by just one strain, the B strain. However, since 2015, there has been an increase in the infection rate caused by the W strain and so, some states have started providing a free vaccine against the A, C, W and Y strains for high-risk patients.
What even is meningococcal disease? Meningococcal disease is an acute, potentially life-threatening illness caused by a bacterial infection of the blood and/or the membranes lining the brain and spinal cord.
Who is at risk of getting meningococcal disease? Anyone can contract meningococcal disease, however, there are two groups of people who have the highest risk. This includes:
Infants and children under the age of 5. This is because their immune system is less mature than the rest of the population and they are more likely to undertake high-risk behaviours such as putting things in their mouth and sharing food/drink and toys.
Teenagers and young adults aged between 15 to 24 years. This is a result of their socially interactive lifestyle.
Is it contagious? The bacteria that causes meningococcal disease is spread via mucus, which is usually passed between people by coughing, sneezing or kissing. The bacteria do not survive for long outside the body so infection is not likely to be contracted by touching objects like a telephone, table or shopping trolley.
How would I know if I have meningococcal disease? The symptoms of meningococcal disease can take as long as 7 days to develop after infection. Symptoms may include:
Vomiting or diarrhoea
Drowsiness or confusion; and
Muscle or joint aches
Infants may also present with:
Rapid breathing or panting
A high-pitched cry
Refusal to feed; and a
Bulging fontanelle (soft spot on the top of the head).
The classic meningococcal rash, which looks like bleeding spots under the skin, is a sign of a life-threatening blood infection. This rash starts with one or two red or purple spots anywhere on the body and can spread very quickly. Other symptoms may be present without the rash, so it is important to seek medical help if any of the above symptoms are evident.
What is the treatment available? Urgent medical care at a hospital is recommended for anyone who develops any signs or symptoms of meningococcal disease. Antibiotics (given via an intravenous drip) are essential for any chance of recovery. The earlier treatment is started, the better the chance of recovery.
Can I do anything to prevent meningococcal disease? Yes - the good news is that meningococcal disease is preventable. Good hygiene practices, like not sharing your drink bottle, toothbrush, mouthguard or lip gloss, can reduce the risk of spread.
However, the most effective way to prevent against is through vaccination. As mentioned above, vaccines are now available in Australia against the A, B, C, W and Y strains of meningococcal bacteria. The National Immunisation Program also offers all children a free vaccine against meningococcal C at twelve months.
Want more information? For more information, speak to your doctor or pharmacist today, or see the relevant website for your state below:
This post was written by Amanda Green. Amanda is a pharmacist with more than 10 years of both hospital and community pharmacy experience. She is a mother of two young children and is passionate about health and fitness.