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High rates of meningococcal disease continue

The New Zealand epidemic of meningococcal disease is continuing, with more notified cases this year compared with the same time in 2000.

The search for a vaccine and maintaining a high awareness of the disease and need for early treatment, are two of a range of strategies being used in response to the epidemic, which began in 1991.

To 2 February 2001, 51 cases of meningococcal disease have been reported, including two deaths. For the same time last year, 25 cases had been reported, with no deaths. The provisional total number of notified cases for 2000 was 476 with 18 deaths in 2000, compared to 505 cases and 23 deaths in 1999.

In the epidemic to date, the peak year was 1997 when 613 cases were notified, including 24 deaths.

Ministry of Health Public Health Medicine Specialist Dr Jane O'Hallahan said that while the annual number of notified cases have fluctuated since 1997, there is no indication that the epidemic is declining.

"Experience from other countries has shown that epidemics of meningococcal disease can last for 15 years.

"In addition, after the epidemic has finished, the rate of disease may continue to be higher than before the epidemic started."

Dr O'Hallahan, Project Manager for the Ministry of Health's Meningococcal Vaccine Strategy team, said that work is continuing to find a specific vaccine for the serogroupB meningococcal epidemic in New Zealand.

"A vaccine will offer the best means of epidemic control and will also be important for the ongoing prevention of meningococcal disease in New Zealand. But, it is also important to note that this vaccine is being developed specifically for the New Zealand situation. Vaccine development takes time ? it is a lengthy and complicated task, which cannot be rushed."

"A new vaccine needs to be developed for the specific strain of meningococcal disease that is prevalent in New Zealand because no currently available meningococcal vaccine is suitable," Dr O'Hallahan said.

New Zealand is currently considering opportunities presented by four manufacturers to develop a vaccine for the New Zealand epidemic. It is expected that a recommendation on a preferred manufacturer will be made to the Minister of Health mid-year.

Dr O'Hallahan said that while vaccine development is important, the development and eventual vaccine trials are only one part of the national plan for the prevention and control of meningococcal disease.

Other aspects include increased disease surveillance, increasing public and professional awareness of the disease and the need for early diagnosis and early treatment, and the prevention of secondary cases through contact tracing and medication.

"The key points to remember are that early identification of symptoms and immediate treatment are crucial to preventing deaths and the further spread of the disease.

"Meningococcal disease can cause two very serious illnesses, septicaemia (blood poisoning) and meningitis (an infection of the brain membranes). Prompt treatment with antibiotics, usually by injection, can prevent death or permanent disability such as brain damage or deafness.

"Meningococcal disease can look like a case of the flu in the early stages, but the patient's condition will rapidly deteriorate. It's important that people who are showing symptom, or parents or caregivers with a child who is very sick with a fever should seek immediate advice from a doctor."

Symptoms included a fever and possibly headache and vomiting. A rash may sometimes appear, but not necessarily. A young child with meningococcal disease may refuse drink or food, vomit and cry or be unsettled.

"If anyone has these symptoms treatment should be sought immediately. Don't wait, take action."

END

For more information contact: Selina Gentry, Media Advisor, ph: 04-496-2483 or 025-277-5411 Internet address: http://www.moh.govt.nz/media.html

Background Information

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.

Development of a vaccine strategy is one part of the national plan for the prevention and control of meningococcal disease. Other aspects of the national plan include increased disease surveillance, increasing public and professional awareness of the disease and the need for early diagnosis and early treatment, and the prevention of secondary cases through contact tracing and medication.

Statistics

Since 1 January 1991 - 31 January 2001 a total of 3700 cases of all groups of meningococcal disease have been notified - many of them sero-group B cases including 166 deaths. The provisional total number of notified cases for 2000 was 476 with 18 deaths in 2000, compared to 505 cases and 23 deaths in 1999.

For the year to date from 1 January 2001 - 2 February 2001, there have been 51 cases of meningococcal disease and 2 deaths. At the same time in 2000, there were 25 cases and no deaths.

Don't wait - take action: see a doctor if you or your child is sick.

If your child is sick - check often.

Meningococcal disease - early treatment saves lives.

Your child may be seriously ill if they:
- have a fever
- - refuse drinks or feeds –
- are sleepy or floppy
- - or harder to wake
- - vomit
- - are crying or unsettled
- - have a rash/spots
- - have a headache.

Doctor' visits are free for children under six.

Anyone can get meningococcal disease - though those at greatest risk are children under five and young adults.

if your child gets worse - take them straight back to the doctor.

Further Information can also be obtained from the Ministry of Health website www.moh.govt.nz

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