Published on June 20, 2023
Authored by Pfizer Medical Team
Meningococcal disease refers to an illness caused by a bacterium called Neisseria meningitidis (commonly called meningococcus or simply ‘meningococcal’).1
You may be familiar with the word ‘meningitis’ which refers to infection of the lining of the brain or spinal cord. Meningitis can be caused by a wide range of organisms such as bacteria, viruses, and fungi. Bacterial meningitis is most common and presents a high burden of disease globally. Bacterial meningitis includes meningococcal, which can manifest as meningitis or septicaemia (blood poisoning).
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, but suddenly worsens, potentially leading to death or lifelong disability. It is very important to act quickly and seek help from your healthcare professional.
The 5 most common forms of meningococcal disease are A, B, C, W, and Y.2 In some cases, infection can lead to death in as little as 24 hours. 3 In 2022, 125 cases of invasive meningococcal disease were confirmed in Australia.4
While anyone can get meningococcal disease, infants, children and adolescents are at increased risk. If that’s news to you, you’re not alone – many parents say that they don’t know much about meningococcal disease, or how to help protect their children.5 We’re here to change that for the better, and to give you the resources you need to stay informed.
Early symptoms of meningococcal disease may seem like the flu, but these can progress quickly.6 These may include:
Eye pain or discomfort due to light
Cold hands and feet
Other symptoms can occur later and can include a rash that looks like small red or purple spots - some areas might be bigger and the rash may not fade when pressed. Note that while people are familiar with this symptom being commonly associated with meningococcal, not every person may present in this distinctive way.
Because the symptoms of meningococcal disease look like a lot of other illnesses being colds and flu, the disease can be difficult to diagnose on time.7 This can lead to delays in treatment, which can lead to serious consequences, including hospitalisation, disability and/or death.8
Get urgent medical attention from your doctor or go to the Accident & Emergency department at your local hospital, if your child or someone you know shows any of the signs above, especially if these signs worsen very quickly. Not everyone may get a stiff neck or a rash. A rash may be one of the last symptoms to appear. Don’t wait for a rash before seeking urgent medical help.
The bacteria that cause meningococcal disease are spread by close and lengthy contact, such as deep kissing, living in a close environment, or sharing saliva.6
Did you know that you can also spread meningitis even if you don’t feel sick? Some people carry the bacteria that cause the disease without showing any symptoms.9
Here are some examples of common sharing behaviours that may put your kids at risk:10
Coughing and sneezing without covering their mouth
Sharing drink bottles
Not washing hands thoroughly and regularly
Living in a close environment such as student accommodation at boarding schools, colleges or on an military base
Meningococcal disease is a rare but dangerous and unpredictable disease. Anyone can get meningococcal disease, but some groups of people may be more at risk:11
While we don’t recommend isolating yourself from everyone, we do recommend that you speak to your doctor about what you can do to protect yourself or your family against meningococcal disease.
Other helpful things to reduce the chance of spreading bacterial infections (such as meningococcal disease) are to maintain good hygiene habits such as:
Regularly washing hands thoroughly
Not sharing dishes, cups, or eating utensils
Coughing or sneezing into elbow
Teaching children to throw used tissues in the bin straight away, and to wash their hands afterwards
Keeping up-to-date with recommended vaccines
Reach out to your doctor for more information on meningococcal disease.
You can’t stop your children from doing many of the common social behaviours that can spread meningococcal disease. But you can help protect them against all 5 forms of meningococcal bacteria. Speak to your doctor for more information about Meningococcal ACWY and B vaccines.
It’s up to you to help protect your kids from meningococcal disease. But it’s not up to you alone. We’ve put together some resources that are designed to help you get the information you need. In Australia and New Zealand, these groups and organisations may be able to offer support:
Meningitis Centre Australia: https://www.meningitis.com.au/
Meningitis Foundation NZ: https://www.meningitis.org.nz/
National Immunisation Program Schedule, Australian Government of Health and Aged Care: https://www.health.gov.au/health-topics/immunisation/when-to-get-vaccinated/national-immunisation-program-schedule#state-and-territory-immunisation-schedules
Watch a video and learn about meningococcal disease in 1 minute: https://www.pfizer.com.au/your-health/conditions/meningococcal-disease/learn-about-meningococcal-disease-in-1-minute
- Meningitis Centre Australia
- Meningitis Foundation NZ
- National Immunisation Program Schedule, Australian Government of Health and Aged Care