Te mate meningococcal Meningococcal disease

Meningococcal disease is a bacterial infection. It can cause 2 very serious illnesses — meningitis and blood poisoning. These complications can cause permanent disability, deafness or death. Early treatment is very important.

Symptoms of meningococcal disease

Symptoms of meningococcal disease can develop over 1 or 2 days, or in just a few hours.

Early symptoms can look like the flu or a cold. They usually become worse quickly.

Meningococcal disease can cause inflammation of the membranes around the brain (meningitis) or blood infection (septicaemia).

Brain and spinal cord infection (meningococcal meningitis)

When meningococcus bacteria cause meningitis it is called meningococcal meningitis. This is when meningococcal bacteria infect the lining of the brain and spinal cord and cause swelling.

In the early stages, you usually feel unwell, with fever, headache and vomiting, just like a cold or flu.

Symptoms include:

  • stiff neck
  • fever
  • headache
  • eyes being more sensitive to light (photophobia)
  • confusion.

In pēpi meningitis may cause poor eating and drinking, low alertness, vomiting, and a high-pitch cry. Small pēpi may become unable to settle and dislike being held. They may have a bulging fontanel (the soft spot on the top of your baby’s head).

About 1 in 12 tamariki and 1 in 6 older adults who get pneumococcal meningitis die of the infection. People who live may have long-term problems, such as hearing loss or developmental delay.

Blood infection (septicaemia)

Blood infections can be very serious. Symptoms of a blood infection are often like a cold or the flu.

Early symptoms often include:

  • fever
  • chills
  • feeling very unwell.

Most people develop a rash with reddish-purple spots that can be like small pinpricks or big blotches. It does not become pale or go white when pressed on.

As the infection develops, more severe symptoms may show up. These include:

  • confusion or the inability to think clearly
  • poor circulation leading to cold hands and feet
  • dangerously low blood pressure
  • multiple organ failure.

Blood infections can lead to loss of a limb or limbs, or death.

Who to contact for medical advice

If you have symptoms that you are worried about:

  • call Healthline for free advice 0800 611 116
  • call 111 for an ambulance in an emergency.

Complications of meningococcal disease

People who are treated and live after having meningococcal disease can still have long-term health issues, including:

  • loss of a limb or limbs
  • deafness
  • brain damage.

People at higher risk of meningococcal disease

Meningococcal disease can affect anyone – but it is more common in tamariki under the age of 5, teens, and young adults.

Students living in student accommodation may also be at higher risk because of their close contact with others.

Meningococcal disease is more common in:

  • pēpi and tamariki 
  • teens and young adults
  • people who have other respiratory infections
  • close contacts of people with meningococcal disease
  • people living in crowded housing
  • people exposed to tobacco smoke
  • people with a weak immune system (immunocompromised).

How meningococcal disease develops

Many people carry meningococcal bacteria in their nose and throat without getting sick.

In rare cases, the bacteria spread in the body and cause infections. These infections are known as meningococcal disease.

The bacteria do not survive for long outside the body, so it is difficult to spread the disease between people unless you have long and close contact.

Meningococcal bacteria are more likely to spread between:

  • people in the same household
  • roommates
  • anyone with direct contact with the infected person's saliva, such as a kissing partner.

Covering your nose or mouth when you sneeze or cough, and washing and drying your hands, can help reduce the chance of spreading bacteria. Avoid sharing items which may have saliva on them like drink bottles or lip balm.

Diagnosing meningococcal disease

Meningococcal disease can be difficult to diagnose because the symptoms are often similar to other illnesses.

If your healthcare provider thinks you have meningococcal disease, they will collect samples of either your blood or fluid near the spinal cord. Growing the bacteria from these samples in a laboratory will show which bacteria are causing the infection.

If your healthcare provider thinks you have meningococcal disease they may treat you with antibiotics before confirming the diagnosis to avoid the risk of death.

Staying home

If you have meningococcal disease or have been in contact with someone who has it, public health services will contact you to tell you what you need to do. They will support you with advice on how to keep yourself and your whānau safe during your illness.

You may have to isolate at home to avoid giving it to others.

Call Healthline on 0800 611 116

Treatment for meningococcal disease

Early treatment is very important – meningococcal disease can be treated with antibiotics.

Healthcare providers will usually treat you with antibiotic injections and put you in hospital if they think you have meningococcal disease. This will help decrease the risk of permanent damage or death.

Depending on how serious the infection is, you may need other treatments, including:

  • intensive care
  • breathing support
  • medications to treat low blood pressure
  • surgery to remove dead skin tissue
  • wound care for parts of the body with damaged skin.

Even when the disease is identified and treated early, 1 to 2 people in 10 will die.

Preventing meningococcal disease

There are a number of strains of meningococcus bacteria. The most common 1 in Aotearoa New Zealand is meningococcal B.

The meningococcal B vaccine is free for all:

  • pēpi
  • tamariki under 5 years old
  • rangatahi ages 13 to 25 years living in certain close-living situations.

You can also be immunised against other strains. Find out about the vaccines.

Meningococcal vaccine

Pneumococcal disease

Pneumococcal disease is similar to meningococcal disease. Find out about its symptoms, spread, treatment and prevention.

Haemophilus influenzae disease type b (Hib)

Hib is similar to meningococcal disease. Find out the symptoms, spread, treatment and prevention.

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