Meningococcal disease (including meningitis)

Meningococcal disease is a bacterial infection that causes two very serious illnesses: meningitis (an infection of the membranes that cover the brain) and septicaemia (blood poisoning).

Summary

Meningococcal disease is caused by a bacterial infection and can cause death or permanent disability, such as deafness.

It can affect anyone – but it’s more common in children under the age of 5, teenagers, and young adults. Students in their first year of tertiary education living in student accommodation may also be at higher risk.

It’s important to know the signs and symptoms of meningococcal disease because it can develop very quickly. It can be treated with antibiotics, but early treatment is very important.

If you notice any of the symptoms of meningococcal disease or have any other concerns, contact your doctor without delay – or call Healthline free on 0800 611 116 at any hour of the day or night, even if you have already been seen by a health professional.

How is it spread?

Meningococcal disease is usually caught from people who carry the bacteria in their nose or throat but are not ill themselves. Up to 15% of people carry the bacteria that cause meningococcal disease in their nose and throat without being sick. In some people, for reasons we don’t fully understand, these bacteria sometimes go on to cause disease, spreading through the bloodstream (causing blood poisoning) or to the brain (causing meningitis).

Meningococcal bacteria are difficult to catch as they don’t live for very long outside of the body. They pass from one person to another through secretions from the nose or throat, during close or prolonged contact, for example:

  • by coughing or sneezing (by droplet spread)
  • by kissing
  • by sharing eating or drinking utensils, toothbrushes, pacifiers.

Basic steps like covering your nose or mouth when you sneeze or cough, and washing and drying your hands can help reduce the chance of spreading the bacteria that can cause illness.

Who is most at risk?

Anyone can potentially get meningococcal disease, but, it is more common in:

  • babies and young children
  • teenagers and young adults
  • people with a weak immune system – for example those having chemotherapy treatment or have HIV
  • close contacts of meningococcal disease cases (eg, same household)
  • those having other respiratory infections (eg, flu)
  • people living in shared accommodation such as halls of residence (university), boarding school and hostels
  • those living in overcrowded housing
  • those exposed to tobacco smoke.

It is possible to get meningitis more than once.

Meningococcal bacteria

Meningococcal disease is caused by the bacterium Neisseria meningitidis. There are several different groups of meningococcal bacteria including groups A, B, C, Y and W (previously called W135). These groups of bacteria can be further divided into specific strains.

  • Most cases in New Zealand are caused by group B.
  • Since 2017 there has been an increasing number of cases of meningococcal disease caused by groups W and Y, and group W is now the second most common group, followed by group Y.
  • There have previously been limited outbreaks of meningococcal disease due to group A.

Up to 15% of people carry the bacteria that cause meningococcal disease in their nose and throat without being sick. In some people, for reasons we don’t fully understand, these bacteria sometimes go on to cause disease, spreading through the bloodstream (causing blood poisoning) or to the brain (causing meningitis).

Symptoms

Meningococcal disease can be difficult to diagnose because it can look like other illnesses, such as the flu.

Symptoms of meningitis can develop suddenly and include:

  • a high fever
  • headache
  • sleepiness
  • joint and muscle pains.

There can also be some more specific symptoms, such as:

  • a stiff neck
  • dislike of bright lights
  • vomiting
  • crying
  • refusal to feed (in infants)
  • a rash consisting of reddish-purple pin-prick spots or bruises.

What to do

  • If you or anyone in your family has these symptoms, call your doctor straight away or dial 111.
  • Say what the symptoms are.
  • You can also call Healthline free on 0800 611 116, 24 hours a day – even if you have already been seen by a health professional.
  • If you have seen a doctor and gone home, but are still concerned, don't hesitate to call your doctor again or seek further medical advice. Don’t be put off. Insist on immediate action.

Treatment

Meningococcal disease can develop very quickly.

It’s important to be aware of the symptoms so you can get medical help straight away – whether it’s day or night.

Meningococcal disease can be treated with antibiotics – but early treatment is very important.

Prevention

Meningococcal disease bacteria can be spread from person-to-person through secretions and respiratory droplets.

Therefore:

  • cover your nose or mouth when you sneeze or cough and wash and dry your hands
  • avoid sharing eating or drinking utensils, toothbrushes, pacifiers.

Immunisation

The meningococcal B (men B) vaccine is free for all tamariki under 5 years old. There are also meningococcal vaccines available for ages 13 to 25 years living in certain close-living situations.

Meningococcal B added to the National Immunisation Schedule 1 March 2023

The meningococcal B vaccine is on the National Immunistion Schedule for babies at 3 months, 5 months, and 12 months old. It will protect your pēpi (baby) against meningococcal B.

There’s also an option to have your pēpi immunised slightly earlier at 2 months, 4 months, and 12 months old. This will mean extra appointments. If you’d like to, you can discuss this with your doctor, nurse, or healthcare provider during your baby’s 6-week immunisation appointment.

Meningococcal B vaccine catch-ups

Tamariki under 5 years old

All tamariki under 5 years old, who have not had 3 doses, can catch up for free until 31 August 2025.

Rangatahi (young people) in certain close-living situations

Rangatahi aged 13 to 25 years old living in close-living situations can get free meningococcal B vaccines until 28 February 2024.

Close-living situations include boarding schools, hostels, halls of residence, military barracks, and prisons.

Additional meningococcal vaccines

Rangatahi entering into, or in their first year, of certain close living situations

Rangatahi aged 13 to 25 years who are entering into, or in their first year of certain close-living situations, can get a free:

  • meningococcal B vaccine, and
  • meningococcal A, C, W, and Y vaccine.

Close living situations include boarding schools, hostels, halls of residence, military barracks, and prisons.

Tamariki and adults at high risk

Additional meningococcal vaccines and doses may be available and free for children and adults at high risk of disease due to medical conditions, or people who’ve been in close contact with someone with meningococcal disease. This includes:

  • meningococcal B vaccine
  • meningococcal A, C, W, and Y vaccine
  • meningococcal C vaccine (given to young babies).

Talk to your doctor, nurse, or healthcare provider to see if this is recommended for you or your tamariki.

If you, or your tamariki, are not eligible for free immunisations, and you'd like to be protected, talk to your doctor, nurse, or healthcare provider about whether extra protection is a good idea and what it might cost.

Which vaccines are used

Meningococcal B vaccine

Bexsero is the vaccine we use in New Zealand to protect against meningococcal B.

Bexsero information – Medsafe (PDF)

Meningococcal A, C, W, and Y vaccine

Menactra or MenQuadfi are the free vaccines we use in New Zealand to protect against meningococcal A, C, W, and Y. You need 1 dose.

Menactra information – Medsafe (PDF)

MenQuadfi information – Medsafe (PDF)

Meningococcal C vaccine

High-risk babies under 12 months may be offered NeisVac-C to protect against meningococcal C.

NeisVac-C information – Medsafe (PDF)

Side effects and reactions

Like most medicines, vaccines can sometimes cause reactions. These are usually mild, and not everyone will get them.

Mild reactions are normal and shows that your child's immune system is responding to the vaccine.

If your tamariki is going to have any reactions, they normally happen in the first few days after getting vaccinated. The vaccine itself is gone from your child’s body within a few hours or days.

The most common reaction to an immunisation includes:

  • a slight fever
  • pain or swelling where the needle went in.

Other common reactions

The meningococcal B vaccine can cause quite high fevers – particularly for tamariki under 2 years. Your vaccinator will recommend the best use of paracetamol to manage this.

Other common reactions to the meningococcal vaccines include:

  • headache
  • irritability (in babies)
  • feeling sick (nausea)
  • aches and pains
  • dizziness.

Serious reactions are rare. If you have any questions or concerns, talk to your doctor or nurse, or call Healthline on 0800 611 116.

Call 111 if you’re worried your child is having a serious reaction.

Allergic reactions

Serious allergic reactions are extremely rare. Only about 1 in 1 million people will experience this.

Your vaccinator is well-trained and knows what to look for and can treat an allergic reaction quickly if it happens.

Serious allergic reactions normally happen within the first few minutes of vaccination, this is why your tamariki need to wait for up to 20 minutes after immunisation.

 

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