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Meningococcal Disease Season Peak Approaching

Meningococcal Disease Season Peak Approaching

The Ministry of Health today encouraged the public and the health profession to up its vigilance for signs and symptoms of meningococcal disease as the season's peak approaches.

Director of Public Health Dr Colin Tukuitonga said the disease had occurred at epidemic levels in New Zealand for the past 12 years, and showed no sign of letting up.

"This has been a devastating disease for so many New Zealand families. Since 1991 just over 200 people have died, and many, many more have been left with a permanent disability.

"Recently, there have been three deaths from meningococcal disease and publicity about other non-fatal cases. This serves as a warning that winter and spring are the time when the incidence of this disease increases," Dr Tukuitonga said.

"The fact that health professionals and the public have high awareness of this disease has led to our very low death rate, compared with other countries. Last year three per cent of people who contracted this disease died, so it is important to remember that, with quick and appropriate treatment, most people do survive.

"Generally the public has been quick to act, and health professionals vigilant. The media has also been helpful through its reporting of cases and inclusion in stories of the disease signs and symptoms.

"However, this disease is hard to diagnose, and in the early stages has symptoms similar to other conditions, including flu. Therefore there is no room for complacency.

"The public needs to seek medical attention early if they or someone they know shows symptoms.

"Health professionals need to keep meningococcal disease at the top of their minds when treating people, and strongly direct that patients' conditions be monitored for the next few days. Family and friends who are directed to do this, must ensure that they keep an eye on the patient."

Dr Tukuitonga said the Ministry was progressing towards making a vaccine that protects against group B meningococcal disease available free to the most at risk age groups. Group B meningococcal disease causes most of the cases in New Zealand.

Clinical trials were underway in Auckland, and if they proved successful and regulatory approval was granted, the vaccine would start to be available next year.

"We are heartened that initial results from the clinical trials are indicating that the vaccine is safe and is providing protection against the disease. However, more clinical trials and further review of the results need to be undertaken before we can be sure of this vaccine," he said.

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