Is Your Family Fully Protected Against Meningococcal Meningitis?
Since 2003 Australian children have been routinely vaccinated against the C strain of meninococcus but it is not well-known that extra protection is available. Queenslanders aged 15 to 19 years can access a free vaccine against the A,C,W & Y strains through their local doctor until May 2018 (see further down). Vaccination against the most common strain of meningococcus (the B strain) is not included in the routine schedule but can be purchased privately.
What is meningitis?
Meningitis is an infection of the lining of the brain (the meninges). It is caused by a variety of infectious agents including bacteria and viruses. Some are less severe than others. Meningococcal meningitis is one of the most severe. Meningococcal bacteria release toxins that can damage the meninges and brain or the lining of blood vessels causing meningitis, sepsis (‘blood poisoning’) and shock. It can be rapidly fatal, result in brain damage, disability and sometimes amputations.
What are the signs of meningococcal disease?
The signs of meningococcal disease are can be variable and subtle. For this reason, the disease can be difficult to diagnose but the classical presentation includes:
- Neck stiffness
- Light sensitivity
- Stomach pain, nausea, diarrhoea (less common)
- Generalised aches or limb pain
The rash is caused by bleeding into the skin resulting in blotches of various sizes that can progress quickly. The rash typically does not blanch with pressure like when a glass jar is placed onto the skin with some pressure. However, this is not universal. Sufferers tend to become seriously ill quite rapidly.
Who gets meningococcal meningitis?
Meningococcal disease is serious but thankfully not common with only several hundred cases reported per year in Australia. It is more common in winter and early spring and can occur sporadically or in epidemics. Anyone can contract the disease but it is more common in under 5-year-olds and 15 to 24-year-olds.
What can be done to protect against meningococcal disease?
There are several vaccines available providing protection against different strains of meningococcus.
Since 2003, Australian children have been vaccinated against meningococcus C as part of the routine national immunisation program.
Starting in 2017, Queensland year 10 students will be vaccinated against strains A,C,W and Y at school. All Queenslanders aged 15 to 19 years can access this free vaccine through their local doctor until May 2018 (after that you have to pay for it but year 10 students will continue to receive it for free).
Meningococcal B is the predominant strain of meningococcal in Australia, particularly since the addition of the C strain vaccinations to our routine immunisation schedule. There is a vaccine available against the B strain, however it is not funded by the government. It costs about $120 per dose and two doses are usually required, separated by 2 months. Delaying until after 12 months of age avoids the need for a third booster dose. Some private health insurers will refund part of the cost of the vaccine depending on your policy. The meningococcal B vaccine is a little more likely to cause a fever, sore arm and make you feel lethargic for a couple of days.