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What is meningococcal disease?


Meningococcal disease is a serious bacterial infection caused by a bacterium (germ) Neisseria meningitidis , known as a meningococcus. It usually affects the membrane around the brain (meningitis) or the blood (blood poisoning). It is a serious disease and can sometimes cause death or permanent disability such as deafness.

Can meningococcal disease be treated?

Yes. Meningococcal disease can be treated with antibiotics. It is very important that antibiotic treatment is started early. However, even with treatment, death, disfigurement and disability can still occur.

Can meningococcal disease be prevented?

The spread of meningococcal disease from person to person can be prevented once the disease has been identified and close contacts of that person are given antibiotics to clear the organism from their throat. 

Some forms of meningococcal disease can be prevented by vaccine. Vaccines effective against meningococcal groups A, C, Y and W135 are currently licensed for use in New Zealand. Immunisation programmes have successfully controlled outbreaks of group A and C meningococcal disease. At present the type of meningococcal disease causing the majority of cases in New Zealand is a strain of group B.

The Ministry of Health is currently having discussions with several manufacturers of candidate vaccines overseas for a trial in New Zealand.

These vaccines show a lot of promise but need to be tailor made for the dominant strain of germ in NZ. It is possible that a limited trial will be conducted in NZ next year. If successful, it could be extended but it is important to be confident of safety and effectiveness.

How is meningococcal disease spread?

The bacteria (meningococci) can be spread by close contact with someone who is carrying it.Close contact means:

  • Living in the same household
  • Sleeping in the same room
  • Attending the same pre-school (for more than just a few hours a week)
  • Sharing food, drink or utensils
  • Kissing
  • Sharing spit – from whistles, chewing gum etc.

People often carry the meningococcal bacteria harmlessly in their nose and throat without getting ill. As many as two people in every 10 may carry the bacteria (meningococci) in their throats. This figure can sometimes be as high as five in every 10 in specific communities.

NB: Meningococcal disease cannot be caught by putting your head under the water in hot pools found in New Zealand. Amoebic meningitis may occur after exposure to a different organism from that which causes meningococcal disease.

Why do only some people get sick with meningococcal disease?

Meningococci bacteria are often present in many people without causing disease, but on rare occasions they penetrate the defences of the lining of the throat to cause an invasive life-threatening illness. The reasons why this occurs in one person and not another is unclear. Invasive disease is more common in infants and young adults, and appears to occur in the first few days of exposure of a susceptible person, after which immunity develops.

In children the illness may be very non-specific however it may quickly become life threatening. This is why it is most important to recognize the early signs of meningococcal disease and to take appropriate action. The most important signs of these diseases are high fever, being very unwell and getting worse rapidly. As well as these signs people with Meningococcal disease may have:


  • Hot and fretful, refusing feeds and vomiting
  • Crying with a high pitched cry or moaning
  • Go into a deep sleep and not easy to wake
  • Have a rash with blotchy skin or red to purple spots or bruises


  • High fever, headache, joint pains, vomiting, sometimes a stiff neck and a dislike of bright lights
  • Sleepy, confused, delirious or unconscious
  • Develop a rash or red spots or purple bruises.
  • Refuse drinks or food

What should the public do?

  • "don’t share spit" is OK for older children and young adults but unrealistic to advise that parents shouldn't kiss their babies etc.
  • Avoid exposing children to cigarette smoke
  • Know about the early features and take action if concerned. Know where to seek help after hours and how to get there.
  • Watch sick family members or friends frequently for any deterioration and if so, seek help promptly

If you or any member of your family has these symptoms then you should see a doctor as soon as possible.

Early treatment with antibiotics can save lives if the symptoms turn out to be those of meningococcal disease.

Patients and their families must be persistent if they suspect meningococcal disease. Even if a person has been cleared by a doctor they should be watched. If you see a doctor and they say you have got a viral illness, not meningococcal disease, go back if symptoms gets worse.