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Meningococcal Rates Still High

23 November 2001

Meningococcal Rates Still High, Parents And Health Professionals Warned

NEW Zealanders are still contracting meningococcal disease beyond the usual winter/spring peak season, prompting the Ministry of Health to warn parents, caregivers and health professionals of the continuing risk.

"Normally we expect to see notifications drop from mid-October," Ministry spokesperson Dr Jane O'Hallahan said.

In the fortnight ending 16 November 2001, there were thirty-two new cases of meningococcal disease and one death. This brings the total deaths to 25, and the total number of new cases of meningococcal disease to 574 this year.

At the same time last year there were 422 reported cases of meningococcal disease and 16 deaths. The 25 deaths this year is the highest number recorded in a single year since the epidemic began in 1991.

"With six more weeks until the end of the calendar year, it is likely that the total number of cases will exceed the previous peak year of 1997, when 24 deaths and 613 cases were recorded."

"However, meningococcal disease is unpredictable and high rates would need to continue right through November and December 2001 to exceed 613 cases," said Dr O'Hallahan.

"The message to all New Zealanders, especially parents of small children, is to maintain their vigilance as the epidemic shows no signs of abating," Dr O'Hallahan said.

"The epidemic is expected to continue for a further 10 years, and people need to be able to recognise the symptoms of meningococcal disease and seek treatment early."

Symptoms in a very young child can include a fever and vomiting, or the child may refuse drinks or feeds, be excessively sleepy, or cry and be unsettled. A rash like blood spots under the skin may also appear at a later stage. The symptoms in an adult are similar.

Dr O'Hallahan said up to 20 percent of the population or 750,000 New Zealanders carry the meningococcal bacterium in their nose and throat and while not all carriers get sick, babies and young children are particularly at risk of developing scepticaemia (blood poisoning) or meningitis (swelling of the brain) from this bacterium.

"The bacterium can be spread by close contact with someone who is carrying it, such as living in the same household or sharing food drink or utensils, so those in accommodation such as student hostels are also more susceptible."

Dr O'Hallahan said the number of cases reported this year continued to be excessive in all parts of the country. Especially hard-hit regions this year include Waikato, Northland, South and Central Auckland and Otago.


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