NSW Health is urging people to be alert to the symptoms of meningococcal disease as we head into spring when the number of cases is expected to rise.
There have been 48 cases of invasive meningococcal disease and two deaths in NSW so far this year, compared to 36 cases and four deaths during the same period last year. The majority of these cases have been caused by the B strain of the disease.
Director Communicable Diseases at NSW Health, Dr Vicky Sheppeard, said meningococcal disease tended to be most prevalent in late winter/early spring, although cases presented all year round.
“Meningococcal disease is rare, affecting only one person per 100,000 in NSW, but it can be very severe, leading to life-long complications or death,” Dr Sheppeard said.
“People infected with meningococcal disease can become extremely unwell within hours of the first symptoms appearing so it’s important to know what to watch out for. Not all of the symptoms of meningococcal disease may be present at once, so if you suspect you have some it’s vital to see a doctor immediately and return if symptoms worsen.”
Symptoms of meningococcal disease may include sudden onset of fever, cold hands and feet, limb/joint pain, nausea and vomiting, headache, neck stiffness, dislike of bright lights and a pin-prick rash changing to large red-purple blotches that don’t disappear with gentle pressure on the skin. A rash does not always appear or it may occur late in the disease. Babies and very young children may also experience irritability, have difficulty waking, rapid or laboured breathing, diarrhoea, a high-pitched cry or refuse to eat.
Dr Sheppeard said while the majority of meningococcal cases this year were caused by serogroup B, serogroup W had become the predominant strain of meningococcal disease Australia-wide, with NSW case notifications almost tripling from 2015 to 2016.
“The NSW Government’s NSW Meningococcal W Response Program, announced in February, provides free meningococcal ACWY vaccine to Year 11 and 12 students at schools and has had great take-up so far,” she said.
“Altogether 103,862 students were vaccinated in Term Two, with more to be vaccinated in the third and fourth terms. This is expected to provide individual protection against four meningococcal strains, and contribute to herd immunity in the broader population.”
Young people, aged 16 to 18 years, who do not attend high school can see their GP for a free meningococcal ACWY vaccine.
A vaccine against meningococcal C disease is included in the National Immunisation Program schedule and recommended for all children at one year of age as part of the free routine immunisation. A vaccine against some serogroup B strains has become available in Australia and is recommended for young children and adults, but is not part of the National Immunisation Program schedule.
“As we don’t routinely vaccinate against all strains of meningococcal disease, it’s important to be on the lookout for the symptoms, even if you have been vaccinated against some strains,” Dr Sheppeard said.
For more information on meningococcal disease go to the NSW Health website for the Fact Sheet and notifications or call your local Public Health Unit on 1300 066 055.