Young siblings walking happily down the street, one being pushed in a stroller and the other walking along side her.

This rare, but potentially devastating infection can progress rapidly. Most children survive meningococcal disease, but if not diagnosed quickly it can lead to serious long-term disability or death within 24 hours.

Did you know?

  • In Australia, meningococcal B, W and Y cause the majority of disease.
  • Meningococcal disease can cause serious disability or death within 24 hours.
  • Babies and children (under five) are most at risk, followed by adolescents, with the highest incidence of meningococcal disease in babies less than 12 months of age.
  • No single vaccine can protect against all strains of meningococcal disease, but different vaccines are available to help protect against the most common ones.
A father buckling his young son in to a toddlers car seat.

What is it?

Meningococcal disease is caused by meningococcus bacteria. There are multiple strains of meningococcal disease – globally, the most common are A, B, C, W, X and Y. Currently in Australia, strains B, W and Y cause the majority of disease.

Meningococcal disease can cause meningitis (inflammation around the brain) or septicaemia (infection of the blood), or a combination of both.

Whilst meningococcal disease is rare, it is potentially life threatening. Up to 10% of those infected may die and between 10-30% may suffer serious long-term disabilities including brain damage, deafness or loss of limbs.1

What are the symptoms?

The symptoms of meningococcal disease can occur between 2 and 10 days after infection, and commonly appear after 3 to 4 days. Symptoms may initially be similar to a cold or flu (fever, runny nose, sore throat, feeling tired).  But meningococcal infection can progress rapidly, quick diagnosis and emergency treatment is very important.

The distinctive meningococcal rash is an advanced symptom of blood infection which may or may not occur. It’s important that you don’t wait for the purple rash to appear before seeking medical intervention.

Symptoms may vary and can include:

  • sudden onset of high fever
  • headache
  • neck stiffness
  • sensitivity to light
  • confusion
  • muscle aches
  • joint pain
  • cold hands
  • thirst
  • nausea
  • vomiting
  • a dark purple rash which does not disappear with gentle pressure on the skin.

This is not a full list of symptoms. Please speak to your doctor if you have any concerns about meningococcal infection.

How is it spread?

Meningococcal bacteria live naturally in the back of the nose and throat in about 10% of people, without causing illness.2 These people are known as carriers.

The disease is spread by regular and close person-to-person contact with an infected person or carrier. The bacteria can't survive for more than a few seconds outside the body – it is passed from one person to another via respiratory (mucous or saliva) droplets, via activities like intimate kissing or close contact in a crowded household.

Who is at risk?

Most instances of meningococcal disease occur in babies and young children less than 5 years of age and in adolescents (15-19 years of age). The highest incidence of meningococcal disease is in babies less than 12 months old. 

During the early years of life, children have an undeveloped immune system, meaning they are more likely to pick up a strain of meningococcal they are not immunised against or don’t have natural immunity to.

In adolescence, changes in social behaviour that result in close physical contact can lead to increased risk of meningococcal disease.

Some lifestyle and health factors can increase your risk, such as:

  • exposure to smokers
  • recent or current illness in the upper respiratory tract
  • conditions that weaken the immune system
  • living in crowded conditions
  • multiple intimate kissing partners.

Other people may be at risk of meningococcal disease. Please discuss your individual circumstances with your doctor.

Who should be vaccinated?

  • Immunisations covered by the NIP

    The meningococcal ACWY vaccine is recommended and provided free at 12 months of age as part of the National Immunisation Program (NIP). 

    Free government vaccines may not cover all common meningococcal strains for those at risk. Speak to your doctor for more information on meningococcal disease and immunisation options.

    Other recommended immunisations

    Anyone wishing to reduce their risk of meningococcal disease is recommended to have meningococcal ACWY and/or B vaccine if their doctor deems it appropriate. The following groups have been identified by experts as being at greater risk of disease and should discuss their risk and immunisation with their doctors:

    • Infants and young children aged less than 2 years
    • Adolescents aged 15-19 years
    • Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people aged 2 months to 19 years
    • Those with medical conditions associated with an increased risk of meningococcal disease.

    Immunisation schedule

    •  Immunisation funded via the National Immunisation Program (NIP)
    •  Immunisation recommended by experts but is not funded
    Diseases Birth 2 months 4 months 6 months 12 months 18 months 4 years 10 to <15 years 15-19 years
    Chickenpox (varicella)+                  
    A second dose of varicella vaccine is recommended any time between 4 years of age and less than 14 years, at least 4 weeks after the first dose. Speak to your doctor to learn more.
    Diphtheria                  
     
    Hepatitis A+                  
    Two doses of Hepatitis A vaccine are recommended and NIP-funded for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children at 12 months and 18 months living in certain areas. A two-dose schedule (which is not funded) is also recommended for some medically at-risk children and adolescents. Speak to your doctor to learn more.
    Hepatitis B+                  
    An additional booster vaccine is recommended at 12 months of age for preterm infants who were born at less than 32 weeks gestation or whose birth weight was under 2000 grams. Speak to your doctor to learn more.
    Haemophilus influenzae
    type b (Hib)
                     
     
    Human Papillomavirus (HPV)                  
     
    Measles                  
     
    Meningococcal ACWY disease+                  
    The meningococcal ACWY vaccine is strongly recommended (but not funded) for children less than 2 years of age, adolescents (15 - 19 years), Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people (2 months - 19 years), and those aged at or above 2 months with certain medical conditions. A free dose is given at 12 months of age. For anyone wishing to reduce their risk of meningococcal disease the vaccine is recommended if their doctor deems it appropriate. Speak to your doctor to learn more or see who is most at risk of meningococcal disease here.
    Meningococcal B disease+                  
    The meningococcal B vaccine is strongly recommended (but not funded) for children less than 2 years of age, adolescents (15 - 19 years), Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people (2 months - 19 years), and those aged at or above 2 months with certain medical conditions. For anyone wishing to reduce their risk of meningococcal disease the vaccine is recommended if their doctor deems it appropriate. Speak to your doctor to learn more or see who is most at risk of meningococcal disease here.
    Mumps                  
     
    Pneumococcal disease+                  
    An additional dose of pneumococcal vaccine is recommended and NIP-funded at 6 months of age for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children. Two additional doses (at 6 months and 4 years) are recommended and NIP-funded for medically-at risk children. Further doses may be recommended and funded during adolescence depending on risk – speak to your doctor to learn more.
    Polio                  
     
    Rotavirus                  
     
    Rubella                  
     
    Tetanus                  
     
    Whooping cough (pertussis)                  
     
    Annual flu+      
     

     

     

     

     

     
    The influenza vaccine is recommended annually for all people aged 6 months and over. Influenza vaccine is funded under the NIP for those at or above 6 months of age with certain medical conditions and for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people aged 6 months to under 5 years and those aged at or above 15 years. Learn more about who should receive flu vaccination.
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  • Anyone wishing to reduce their risk of meningococcal disease is recommended to have meningococcal ACWY and/or B vaccine if their doctor deems it appropriate. The following groups have been identified by experts as being at greater risk of disease and should discuss their risk and immunisation with their doctors:

    • Young adults (20 -24 years) who live in close quarters (e.g. military recruits and students living in residential accommodation) or who are current smokers.
    • Those with medical conditions associated with an increased risk of meningococcal disease.
    • Laboratory personnel who handle the bacteria.

    Immunisation schedule

    •  Immunisation funded via the National Immunisation Program (NIP)
    •  Immunisations may be recommended by experts but is not funded
    Diseases All adults Planning for a baby Pregnancy 65 and over 70 to 79 years Aboriginal & Torres Strait Islander adults
    Chickenpox (varicella)            
     
    Diphtheria            
     
    Hepatitis B            
     
    Measles            
     
    Meningococcal ACWY disease            
     
    Meningococcal B disease            
     
    Mumps            
     
    Pneumococcal disease+            
    Pneumococcal vaccine is recommended and funded for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples at 50 years of age, with a second dose recommended five years later. All non-Indigenous people can receive a free vaccine at 65 years of age. Women planning pregnancy who have risk factors for pneumococcal disease, including smokers and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women, should be assessed for pneumococcal vaccination.
    Rubella            
     
    Shingles (Herpes zoster)+            
    The herpes zoster (shingles) vaccine is funded for adults aged 70 years, with a short-term catch-up program for adults aged 71-79. It is also recommended (but not funded) for all adults over 60 years of age.
    Tetanus            
     
    Whooping cough (pertussis)            
     
    Annual flu+            
    The influenza vaccine is recommended annually for all adults, and is funded for pregnant women (during any stage of pregnancy), people aged 65 and over, people with certain medical conditions and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples.
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  • Those travelling to certain destinations with an increased risk of meningococcal A, C, W and Y exposure should be immunised. Destinations include but are not limited to parts of sub-Saharan Africa.

    Meningococcal ACWY immunisation is required for pilgrims attending the annual Hajj in Mecca, Saudi Arabia.

    It is important to plan ahead and see your doctor at least 6 to 8 weeks before you travel to discuss immunisation and travel health.

Treatment

Meningococcal disease can lead to death within 24 hours if not diagnosed and treated.

Early recognition and treatment of meningococcal disease offers the best chance of recovery. If you suspect that you, your child or a loved one may have contracted meningococcal disease, seek medical advice immediately.

Treatment will typically involve antibiotics given via injection in hospital. Close contacts may also receive antibiotics and possibly immunisation.

Speak to your doctor for more information on meningococcal disease and immunisation options.

Important information

For information about meningococcal immunisation in your area, speak to your doctor.

Some side effects may be experienced following immunisation. Please discuss any side effects or concerns with your doctor.

References

  1. Australian Technical Advisory Group on Immunisation (ATAGI). The Australian Immunisation Handbook 10th Edition (2018 update). Canberra: Australian Government Department of Health. https://immunisationhandbook.health.gov.au/vaccine-preventable-diseases/meningococcal-disease (accessed April 2018). 
  2. Christensen H et al. Lancet Infectious Diseases. 2010; 10:853–861

AUS/VGU/0008/18 Date of Approval: November 2018