Three cases of meningococcal disease have been diagnosed in South Australia in the past week, prompting SA Health to issue a warning.
So far, 2016 has seen 11 cases, ranging from a one-year-old to a 94-year-old. Last year 30 people were diagnosed with the illness in South Australia.
Professor Paddy Phillips, SA Health Chief Medical Officer, notes, “Meningococcal infection is rare, but it becomes more common when there are more respiratory infections around, such as influenza.”
According to the Immunise Australia Program (part of the Department of Health), meningococcal disease is potentially life-threatening – with up to one out of every 10 cases in Australia resulting in death. Other serious complications of the disease include severe skin scarring or loss of limbs (seen in one out of every 30 cases) or severe brain damage (again, one out of every 30 cases).
Please watch the video below to understand the urgency and severity of Meningococcal Disease. Story continues below.
How is meningococcal disease spread?
The bacteria that causes the illness – Neisseria meningitidis – is typically found in the nose, throat and windpipe. While it’s usually harmless (in the carriers), it can spread and develop into a much more serious problem. Up to 10 percent of the general population carries this bacteria, according to SA Health. Keep in mind, being a carrier doesn’t mean you have the illness or will get severely sick. Most carriers aren’t ‘sick’, but do have the ability to spread the bacteria to others around them.
The bacteria is spread person-to-person through the respiratory tract secretions. This includes close contact situations such as kissing or coughing on someone else. It is also spread between people living in close contact in the same household. Smoking cigarettes and passive cigarette smoke (second-hand smoke) increases your chances of contracting the illness. Parents are urged not to smoke in front of or near their children, as this ups the risk.
What are the symptoms of the illness?
Meningococcal disease is is characterised by a sudden onset of illness and usually rapid deterioration, combined with several (or more) of the following symptoms:
- A high fever
- Cold shivers
- Cold hands or feet
- Tiredness and drowsiness
- Pain in the muscles or joints
- Nausea or vomiting
- Irritability or agitation
- Severe headache
- Stiff or painful neck
- Sensitivity to light
- Rapid breathing
- Pinprick or purple rash
In babies however, these are some of the additional symptoms you may notice:
- Refusing solid feeds
- Pale complexion
- Unusual thirst
- Blank staring expression
- High pitched or moaning cry
- Arching of the back
- Tense or bulging fontanelle (at top of forehead)
What happens after infection?
It’s very possible to go from just-starting-to-show-symptoms to extremely sick in a very short time. This may include inflammation of the lining of the brain or spinal cord, infection of the blood, joint infection, eye infection, a rash or pneumonia. The sudden and severe nature of the symptoms make it essential to get treatment immediately. Health Minister Jack Snelling says, “I urge parents especially to seek medical assistance if they see any of the signs or symptoms of meningococcal disease.” This means calling and visiting a medical professional as soon as possible – even if you aren’t sure if the symptoms are serious or not.
Only a qualified medical professional can diagnose this disease. The doctor will perform an exam and lab tests that look at the patient’s blood and/or cerebrospinal fluid. After diagnosis the patient may need hospitaisation, depending on the severity of the disease. Antibiotics are used to treat the illness and eliminate the possibility of spreading the disease to other people.
If you want to reduce the risk of contracting meningococcal disease SA Health recommends the meningococcal C vaccine for children at 12-months. Infants, children and adults who have some medical conditions may need additional vaccinations. There are 13 strains of the disease, with A, B, C, Y and W135 being the most common. In Australia strains B and C are the ones most often seen. Even though vaccination for strains other C is not part of the normal immunisation schedule, meningococcal ACWY and B vaccines are available by prescription.