Meningitis is infection of the lining of the brain and can be caused by a range of organisms including viruses, bacteria and amoeba. Meningococcal meningitis is one particular bacterial form which starts very quickly and can very severe. There are five main groups which cause disease – A, B, C, W and Y. Most people are aware it’s a very severe disease with a high fatality rate. It is spread from one person to another from close contact. The carrier may remain well.
The illness is most common in small children and older children between age 15 & 25.
Meningococcal vaccine is required for Hajj pilgrims.
Classically rapid onset of headache, fever and rash are the cardinal signs of meningitis, though this is not always the case. Complications result from the illness including sepsis, coma, gangrene, and death.
Good hygiene has some effect on reducing risk, however vaccination is shown to be the most effective way to prevent meningitis.
Yes, antibiotics can cure meningitis but treatment needs to be given early.
All five strains of meningococcal are vaccine preventable however not all strains are covered with one vaccine.There is a vaccine covering types ACW & Y (thought to provide protection for 5 years) and another for type B.
In Australia meningitis risk peaks initially in early childhood and again in late teens. Infants in Australia are routinely vaccinated against meningococcal meningitis type C, which provides long term protection. As a consequence, rates of type C have dropped significantly and are now rare. Type B had been the most common for years until recently. A vaccine against it has been developed but is expensive, requires at least two doses, has a higher rate of side effects and is yet to be funded by the Government. In Australia type W has become increasingly common and as result children are now vaccinated against ACW & Y. There are about 20 cases of meningococcal disease a year in WA.
Meningococcal meningitis in travellers is quite rare, but devastating and often fatal. The African meningitis belt below the Sahara Desert has meningococcal outbreaks annually in the dry season between December and June, and travel to this area requires cover with a broad meningococcal vaccine which provides cover against four strains – A C W and Y.
Outside the African meningitis belt, outbreaks of meningococcal disease also occur. These are usually associated with overcrowding and smoky environments. Examples include school boarding houses, university dormitories and army barracks –situations where a large number of people from far afield all come together and sleep in crowded accommodation. It is a mandatory vaccine for pilgrims to Mecca as a consequence of outbreaks in previous years. It can be a useful vaccine for young people doing voluntary work in orphanages and schools. Modes of travel and accommodation as well as destination and age are therefore factors to be taken into account when considering vaccination.