About meningococcal disease

Of all the illnesses that can strike, meningococcal is one of the most serious.
About meningococcal disease

Meningococcal disease has got to be one of the scariest illnesses around. It can be hard to spot because the symptoms are the same as those associated with lots of other less harmful conditions and it can become dangerous – and possibly fatal – very quickly. Early treatment can save lives, so it’s important to know about the disease.

What is the difference between meningococcal and meningitis?

Meningococcal disease is a bacterial infection that can cause two very serious illnesses. One is meningitis, an inflammation of the membranes that cover the brain. The other is septicaemia, or blood poisoning. Meningitis can also be caused by viral infections and parasites.

Is it really that bad?

Yes, it can be. Thirteen people died from it in New Zealand last year – a jump from previous years when there were between five and eight deaths. Around 100 people get it annually and it is more common in children under five, teenagers and young adults. It can also cause permanent disability, such as deafness or brain damage, and some people who develop septicaemia may end up having to have limbs amputated.

Is it true that some people can have the bacteria that cause it but not get sick?

Yes. Up to 15% of people can carry the bacteria that cause meningococcal disease in their nose and throat without developing it. But for others, exposure to the bacteria can lead to meningococcal disease, spreading through the bloodstream or to the brain.

How do you contract meningococcal disease?

The bacteria are spread from person to person by sneezing, coughing or kissing. Covering your nose or mouth when you sneeze or cough and washing or drying your hands can help reduce the chance of the bacteria being spread.

Can it be prevented?

There are vaccines against meningococcal disease but they will only protect against certain strains. If your child had the MeNZB immunisations between 2004 and 2008, which targeted a particular strain of meningococcal disease that caused an epidemic going back to 1991, they will only be protected against that B strain*, not others such as meningococcal C. Although meningococcal B is more common here, meningococcal C can be more lethal. An outbreak in Northland killed three people last year and it was also responsible for the death of a 12-year-old girl in Wellington last month.

  • That protection is thought to have waned completely now, but the vaccine served to stop the epidemic.

Is there a vaccine for meningococcal C?

Yes, but it’s not free under the national scheme, apart from in Northland where under-20s are offered the vaccine. Prices vary but can range from $50 to $150. It has to be ordered in, so make enquiries with your doctor.


Good hygiene practices such as thorough and regular hand washing can help stop the spread of bacteria that cause meningococcal disease.


Meningococcal disease can be treated with antibiotics and the sooner treatment is started, the better the outcome is likely to be, so it is important for the disease to be diagnosed as early as possible. It can be hard to pinpoint because the symptoms are similar to the flu. If your child does have the symptoms listed below, seek medical help and do it quickly – in some cases the disease can spread very quickly.

In children and adults:

  • Vomiting and sometimes diarrhoea

  • High temperature and fever. Hands and feet may be cold

  • Severe headache

  • Stiff neck (unable to touch chin to chest)

  • Dislike of bright lights

  • Joint or muscle pains

  • Drowsiness

  • Fits

In babies:

High temperature and fever

Hands and feet may be cold

High-pitched moaning or a whimpering cry

Vomiting or refusing feeds

Floppy and fretful, unhappy about being handled

Pulling in their neck or arching their back

Lethargic or difficult to wake

Pale, blotchy skin

Blank expression

Tense or bulging fontanelle

A rash that doesn’t fade when pressure is applied. This can be the last symptom to appear, or it may not appear at all

If they have the above symptoms don’t wait to see if they develop a rash – seek medical help immediately

If you are worried, check on them constantly to make sure they don’t get worse or develop new symptoms

Don’t forget you can ring Healthline on 0800 611 116 for free advice at any hour of the day or night.

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