Experts warn Aussies about invasive meningococcal disease

An infectious diseases expert is reminding Australians to stay vigilant for the signs and symptoms of invasive meningococcal disease (IMD).

According to Professor Robert Booy, IMD is a “potentially debilitating disease that, while rare, can be devastating”.

IMD is a rare bacterial infection which can progress rapidly and may lead to death within 24 hours if not diagnosed early.

Early signs and symptoms including fever, extreme tiredness, and refusal to eat may be difficult to diagnose as they can be easily mistaken for a cold or flu. Other symptoms may include diarrhoea, cold hands and feet, sensitivity to light, pale or blotchy skin, and vomiting.

In the later stages of meningococcal disease, the bacteria can enter the bloodstream and multiply, damaging the walls of the blood vessels. This can cause a dark purple rash – however, the rash may not always appear.

Although meningococcal disease can occur at any age, babies less than two, followed by adolescents aged 15 to 19, are most at risk. Most people who contract meningococcal disease survive, but it’s important that the disease is diagnosed and treated quickly. Up to one in ten of those infected may die, and up to one in five survivors may develop serious long-term complications, including brain damage, deafness or loss of limbs.

GSK research

From a recent survey commissioned by GSK Australia, which includes a sample group of 300 Australian parents, the majority (74%) of respondents didn’t know or had some vague knowledge that early symptoms of meningococcal disease may be hard to recognise and can easily be mistaken for a cold.

Mr Booy says when it comes to meningococcal disease it’s easy to downplay the risks.

“Given the rare nature of the infection the perception of risk among people is often low. But I encourage everyone, especially parents of young children, to learn more about meningococcal disease. It’s important to have an informed conversation with their GP,” he says.

“If contracted, meningococcal disease can have devastating consequences, including life-long disabilities. We can reduce its impact by educating people about the signs and symptoms to look out for and acting on them early.”

According to the GSK survey, the majority (80%) of respondents didn’t know or had some vague knowledge that IMD can have devastating consequences (for example, hearing or limb loss). While it’s rare, with the risk being higher in young children followed by adolescents, more than a quarter of (27%) Australian parents surveyed believed their children are not at all likely to catch IMD.

Increasing cases

When compared to the same period in 2022, there has been a 49% increase in cases in the period between January-June 2023 (45 cases vs 67 cases). The prevalence of IMD declined during 2020-2021 as lockdowns restricted movement and travel. But as Australians are continuing to travel and become more mobile, IMD circulation in the community is increasing.

Meningitis Centre Australia CEO Karen Quick says we need to be raising awareness of IMD in line with other seasonal infections, so Australians are equipped with the knowledge that may help save lives.

“During this season of viral infections such as flu and Covid-19, it’s crucial to remember that meningococcal disease is also at its peak. All Australians should watch for meningococcal symptoms,” she says.

“For over 30 years, Meningitis Centre Australia has been working hard to make information about meningococcal disease easily available to help parents understand the risk their children may face.

“With the change of season, we have another opportunity to remind parents about the signs and symptoms of this disease, so they can act immediately and seek urgent medical attention.”