Meningococcal Disease: What you must know
Learn about meningococcal disease and how you can protect yourself from this life-threatening illness<sup>1</sup>.
What is meningococcal disease?
Meningococcal disease is also called cerebrospinal meningitis and is a highly contagious bacterial infection.2 The disease is uncommon3 but once contracted, it can be life-threatening.1 The onset of symptoms is sudden and the disease can progress very rapidly.1 Even with antibiotic treatment, invasive meningococcal disease causes death in about five to 10 per cent of cases.3
The meningococcus bacteria are responsible for causing meningitis (infection of the membrane covering the spinal cord and the brain), and septicaemia (infection in the bloodstream).3
About 1 in 10 people have these bacteria at the back of their nose and throat without ever causing disease.3 However, in a small number of people, a dangerous strain of the bacteria can move through the lining of the throat, causing what is known as invasive meningococcal disease.3
Who are most at risk?
Meningococcal disease can appear in all age groups.3 The disease is most common in children and young adults between the ages of 15-24.3
It is not well understood why only a few people develop invasive illness, but this may be influenced by genetic, immune (e.g., preceding viral illness), societal (e.g., smoke exposure) or physical factors making them more susceptible to disease.1
Symptoms of meningococcal disease may appear anytime between 2 to 10 days after exposure, but usually between 3 to 4 days.1
The signs and symptoms may include the following:1
- Sudden onset of high fever
- Intense headache
- Nausea and vomiting
- Stiffness and pain in the neck
- Rash of red-purple pinprick spots or large bruises
What are the causes of meningococcal disease and how does it spread?
Humans are the only carriers of meningococcal disease — it cannot be contracted from public swimming pools or water supplies.3
The disease is spread only through direct contact with secretions from an infected person’s nose, throat or mouth.1
Keep in mind though that direct contact includes being exposed to respiratory droplets released from an infected person through coughing, sneezing and talking.1
The infection could also pass to another person through kissing, sharing food or drinking from the same cup.1
Early diagnosis of meningococcal disease is extremely important1. If this disease is not diagnosed and treated early, there is a high risk of death.1
To diagnose the disease the doctor will require a blood and fluid sample from around the spinal cord.3 The samples are then sent to a laboratory to be tested for the presence of meningococcal bacteria.3
If infection is diagnosed early enough and the right antibiotics are given quickly, most people make a complete recovery.3 However, the disease progression is very rapid and admission to hospital is necessary.1
In as many as 10-15% of survivors, there are persistent neurological defects, including hearing loss, speech disorders, loss of limbs, mental retardation and paralysis.2
Direct contacts with infected persons are usually advised to take antibiotics for protection and to prevent further spread of infections.1 Immediate family members and other persons sharing a household are considered at risk.1
Vaccine is also available to prevent meningococcal disease.1
Check with your doctor on how to protect against Meningococcal disease.
- Changi General Hospital; Meningococcal disease; available at www.cgh.com.sg/Health_Library/Health_Information/Pages/HealthLibraryDetails.aspx?DID=155 ; last viewed 29/05/2014
- World Health Organization; Meningococcal disease; available at www.who.int/csr/disease/meningococcal/en/; last viewed 29/05/2014
- Better Health Channel; Meningococcal disease; available at www.betterhealth.vic.gov.au/bhcv2/bhcarticles.nsf/pages/Meningococcal_disease ; last viewed 29/05/2014
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