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Meningococcal infection (or meningococcal disease) is caused by a bacteria called meningococcus. There are 13 strains of meningococcus and five of these can be prevented by vaccines (A, B, C, W and Y strains). Meningococcal infection is uncommon, and not easily spread, but it can cause
serious complications, including:
Meningococcal infections can start suddenly and become extremely serious very quickly. They can cause life-long disabilities, or death in about one in 10 people affected.
If your child has meningococcal infection, early diagnosis and treatment with antibiotics is vital.
Children may have one or more of these symptoms if they have meningococcal infection:
In babies, the typical symptoms may be harder to detect, but they may include:
Symptoms will show up within two to 10 days (but usually about three to four days) after your child has been in contact with meningococcus. Symptoms often begin suddenly.
Anyone showing signs of meningococcal infection needs to immediately see a doctor or be taken to the nearest hospital emergency department.
If meningococcal infection is suspected, samples of blood and the fluid around the spinal cord are taken and tested for the presence of meningococcus bacteria, but antibiotics will usually be started without delay, as a precaution.
If your child has symptoms of meningococcal infection they will be treated in hospital with antibiotics. Early treatment with antibiotics is the key to saving their life and avoiding long-term disability.
Diagnosis is not always easy to make in the beginning. If your child is sent home by the doctor or hospital after some initial symptoms, but becomes worse or doesn't improve, take them straight back to the nearest hospital emergency department.
Meningococcus bacteria is spread by tiny drops of fluid from the nose and throat via coughing, sneezing, spluttering and sharing cups, drink bottles and cutlery. However, it is not easily caught, because once out of the body, the bacteria do not live for long.
Many people carry the meningococcus bacteria in their noses and throats without getting sick. These people are called healthy carriers. Healthy carriers can spread the bacteria to other people, who may then become sick.
To help protect your child from meningococcal infection:
Good hygiene reduces the chance of getting bacterial infections or passing them onto others. Good hygiene includes:
By law, doctors treating patients with suspected or confirmed meningococcal infection must notify the Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS). You may be contacted by DHHS staff for more information.
People who have been in contact with someone who has meningococcal infection in the seven days before they became unwell may be at higher risk of developing meningococcal infection themselves. Some contact people will need to have antibiotic treatment to help prevent them from
becoming sick – your doctor will advise you if this is necessary. Contact people may include:
Rifampicin is the antibiotic medication that is commonly used for contacts. Rifampicin is not suitable for all people, and has some possible temporary side effects (e.g. stomach aches, headaches, body fluids such as saliva and urine turning red or orange). Your doctor will
provide you with all the necessary information.
Taking rifampicin does not guarantee prevention of meningococcal infection. If any of the symptoms of the disease develop, you should still seek urgent medical attention.
Does the rash always appear with meningococcal
A rash will not always appear with meningococcal infection, or it may be one of the last symptoms to appear. If your child has other symptoms of meningococcal infection, seek urgent medical attention, as early treatment is crucial. Do not wait until a rash appears to seek medical advice.
I’ve heard that even if a child recovers from meningococcal
infection, they can have some serious after effects. What might these be?
About one in four people experience some after-effects after recovering from meningococcal infection. These can include headaches, scarring of the skin, deafness or ringing in the ears, blurring or double vision, aching joints and learning difficulties. However, most of these after-effects get
better with time.
Developed by The Royal Children's Hospital General Medicine department. We acknowledge the input of RCH consumers and carers.
Reviewed May 2018.
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