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Awareness Of Meningococcal Disease All-Important

19 August 2002

Awareness Of Meningococcal Disease All-Important In Early Detection And Treatment

LIVES are saved when meningococcal disease is diagnosed and treated early, prompting the Ministry of Health to urge all parents, caregivers and teachers to familiarise themselves with the signs and symptoms.

Ministry spokesman Dr Douglas Lush said today recent cases in the South Otago town of Balclutha had heightened awareness of the disease in the region, and also prompted concern among parents and caregivers in other parts of the country.

Dr Lush said a person may be seriously ill if they: - have a fever - refuse drinks or food - are sleepy or floppy - or harder to wake - vomit - have a rash/spots - have a headache. - in young children and babies the symptoms can also include being unsettled and crying.

"If you or any member of your family has these symptoms then you should see a doctor as soon as you can," Dr Lush said.

"Early treatment with antibiotics can save lives if the symptoms turn out to be those of meningococcal disease."

So far three students at South Otago High School have been confirmed as having group C meningococcal disease. Another student, and two at a nearby primary school are also suspected to have group C meningococcal disease, but health officials have not yet had laboratory confirmation of the diagnosis.

All the students are being treated with antibiotics, which are also being offered to their classmates and family members, to help prevent the spread of the disease.

"People who have been in close contact with someone who has a confirmed case of the meningococcal disease have an increased risk of developing the disease themselves. Antibiotics in the form of a tablet or syrup can kill the meningococcal organism if people are carrying it."

Health officials in South Otago said response to an 0800 number had been steady, with most of the 60 calls coming from the local community. However there had also been some calls from parents in other parts of the country, wanting to know the symptoms of the disease.

Group C meningococcal disease is less common than group B meningococcal disease, which has been epidemic in New Zealand since the early 1990s. Symptoms for both are the same, and early treatment with antibiotics is the most effective way of dealing with both.

Dr Lush said the Ministry of Health, which was working closely with Public Health South, was also providing information on meningococcal disease to schools around the country.

Anyone in the South Otago region wanting more information on the disease and how it is to be managed can ring 0800 153 020 between 8am and 8pm.



What is meningococcal disease? 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.

Can meningococcal disease be treated? Yes. Meningococcal disease can be treated with antibiotics. It is very important that antibiotic treatment is started early. However, even with treatment, death, disfigurement and disability can still occur.

Can meningococcal disease be prevented? The spread of meningococcal disease from person to person can be prevented once the disease has been identified and close contacts of that person are given antibiotics to clear the organism from their throat.

Some forms of meningococcal disease can be prevented by vaccine. Vaccines effective against meningococcal groups A, C, Y and W135 are currently licensed for use in New Zealand. Outbreaks of group A and C meningococcal disease have been successfully controlled by immunisation programmes. At present the type of meningococcal disease causing the majority of cases in New Zealand is a strain of group B.

How is meningococcal disease spread? The bacteria (meningococci) can be spread by close contact with someone who is carrying it.

Close contact means: Living in the same household Sleeping in the same room Attending the same pre-school (for more than just a few hours a week) Sharing food, drink or utensils Kissing Sharing spit ? from whistles, chewing gum etc.

People often carry the meningococcal bacteria harmlessly in their nose and throat without getting ill. As many as two people in every 10 may carry the bacteria (meningococci) in their throats. This figure can sometimes be as high as five in every 10 in specific communities.

NB: Meningococcal disease cannot be caught by putting your head under the water in hot pools found in New Zealand. Amoebic meningitis may occur after exposure to a different organism from that which causes meningococcal disease.

Why do only some people get sick with meningococcal disease? Meningococci bacteria are often present in many people without causing disease, but on rare occasions they penetrate the defences of the lining of the throat to cause an invasive life-threatening illness. The reasons why this occurs in one person and not another is unclear.

Invasive disease is more common in infants and young adults, and appears to occur in the first few days of exposure of a susceptible person, after which immunity develops. In children the illness may be very nonspecific however it may quickly become life threatening. This is why it is most important to recognize the early signs of meningococcal disease and to take appropriate action.


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