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What is meningococcal disease?

Your Health / Conditions / Infections & Infectious Diseases / What is meningococcal disease?​​​​​​​

Published on Apr 07, 2020
Authored by Feisia Dam, BPharm(Hons)


Meningococcal disease is an uncommon but serious and life-threatening condition. Think of it as a cyclone that starts out with symptoms like a cold, and suddenly worsens. It can get worse quickly, and it may lead to death or lifelong complications. Acting quickly and seeking medical help is essential. The bacteria that is responsible can either invade the lining of the brain or spinal cord, causing “meningitis”, or get into the bloodstream, causing “septicaemia” or “blood poisoning”. Anyone can get meningococcal disease, but some people are more at risk. Read on to learn more about it and how you can protect yourself and your family.

What causes meningococcal disease?

A specific germ (also referred to as “bacteria”) called Neisseria meningitidis causes meningococcal disease. It can live in the nose and throat of some people. It is only when this germ invades or spreads, to normally sterile parts of the body that people can get sick. Some people who carry the germ in their nose/throat don’t get sick at all and doctors refer to them as “carriers”.

There are different types of Neisseria meningitidis. These are referred to as different “strains”, of which 6 are the main culprits that cause disease around the world – A, B, C, W, X, and Y. In Australia, the B, W and Y strains are most common, while in New Zealand, B, C, W and Y are most common. Though it is rare, about 1 in 10 people affected can die from it, and some will have lifelong complications such as learning difficulties, deafness or ringing in the ears, or loss of limbs.

What are the symptoms?

Meningococcal disease is hard to recognise because some early symptoms are often mistaken for a cold.

Early symptoms may include:

  • Fever
  • Headache
  • Irritability
  • Vomiting
  • Neck stiffness
  • Eye pain or discomfort due to light
  • Pale skin
  • Cold hands and feet
  • Aching muscles
  • In babies, a bulging fontanelle (the soft spot in the skull)

Symptoms that can occur later include:

  • A rash that looks like small red or purple spots, some areas might be bigger. The rash does not fade when pressed

Get urgent medical attention from the doctor or go to hospital If your child or someone you know shows any of the signs above. Especially if they get sick very quickly.

Not everyone gets a stiff neck or a rash. In fact, a rash is one of the last symptoms to appear. Don’t wait for a rash before seeking urgent medical advice.

How meningococcal disease spreads

Remember how the germ lives in the nose and throat of some people? This means it can spread through secretions  by:

  • coughing or sneezing on someone  
  • intimate kissing
  • close, prolonged household contact

Who can get meningococcal disease?

Anyone can get it, but some groups of people are more at risk.

These include:

  • babies and children under the age of 5
  • teenagers
  • young adults
  • Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people
  • people who have an extremely weak immune system due to medical conditions or medications.

If you, your child or loved one lives in crowded conditions such as student accommodation at boarding schools, colleges or on an army or navy base, they could be at higher risk too.

Smoking or secondhand smoking can also increase your risk.

“Lily was 23…had just completed a university degree… and on Christmas day, she woke up with a high fever, but by 4pm she started to get symptoms that were beyond just the flu” – mother, Stephanie O’Connell, tells us about her daughter’s story of survival.

How can I protect myself and my family?

While we don’t recommend isolating yourself from everyone, we do recommend that you speak to your GP about what you can do to protect yourself or your family against the different strains of the bacteria.

Other helpful things to reduce the chance of spreading bacterial infections is to maintain good hygiene habits such as:

  • regularly washing hands thoroughly
  • encouraging children to cough or sneeze into their elbow
  • teaching children to throw used tissues in the bin straight away, and to wash their hands afterwards.

    1. Jameson JL, Fauci AS, Kasper DL et al. Harrison's Principles of Internal Medicine, 20e. Chapter 150: Meningococcal infections.
    2. Australian Government Department of Health. Invasive Meningococcal Disease National Surveillance Report Q4 2018.
    3. Ministry of Health New Zealand. Meningococcal Disease (including meningitis). Accessed 27 FEB 2020
    4. World Health Organization (WHO) Meningococcal Disease. Accessed 27 FEB 2020
    5. World Health Organization (WHO) Antimicrobial resistance – Infection prevention and control. Accessed 27 FEB 2020
    6. Christensen H, May M, Bowen L, et al. Meningococcal carriage by age: a systematic review and meta-analysis. Lancet Infect Dis 2010; 10: 853–61

    Last reviewed: 4/03/2020


    External Resources

    -Meningitis Centre Australia
    -Brain Foundation | Meningococcal disease
    -Meningitis Foundation NZ

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