What you need to know about meningococcal disease in Tasmania
By Michael Dalla Fontana
As Tasmania deals with the death of a Hobart teenager from meningococcal disease, many are asking questions about the disease and its symptoms.
What is meningococcal disease?
Meningococcal is a bacterial disease which shuts down the blood vessels and can result in gangrene and loss of limbs.
It can also affect the hearing and cause brain damage.
According to the Health Department website, about 10 per cent of healthy individuals carry the meningococcal bacteria in their nose and throat.
In up to 20 per cent of cases, meningococcal disease can result in lifelong disabilities like gangrene and loss of limbs.
Between five and 10 per cent of cases are fatal.
Older teenagers are particularly at risk of carrying and transmitting the bacteria to others, however the bacteria cannot survive outside the body and does not spread easily from shared drinks, food or cigarettes.
There are two main types of infection, meningitis and septicaemia, and there are five main strains: A, B, C, W and Y.
What are the symptoms?
Launceston GP Leanne Jones said the disease can be hard to spot.
“The symptoms are like any of those other illnesses that we’ve got rampant in the community at the moment,” she said.
“People being generally unwell, headaches, neck stiffness. A rash is a rather late sign.”
For meningitis only they include backache, stiff or painful neck, sensitivity to light, twitching or convulsions. Small infants can be off their drinking and/or very listless.
In cases of septicaemia only the symptoms include fever with cold hands and feet, cold shivers, pain in muscles or joints, pain in chest or abdomen, pale, grey or blotchy skin, rapid breathing, diarrhoea, a rash which may start as a spot and develop into a distinctive purple bruising.
Common symptoms include fever, nausea or vomiting, lack of energy, confusion or disorientation, dizziness, irritability and a sore throat.
In 2016, most of the cases in Tasmania were the W strain and the state had the highest rate of W infection in the country.
How does the disease spread?
While infections are still fairly rare, the bacteria that causes meningococcal is quite common.
Meningococcal is spread through saliva droplets, so it can be transmitted through sneezing, kissing and coughing, but it is not as infectious as influenzas strains, with prolonged exposure needed to transmit the disease.
While not sharing drinks or kissing can reduce your risk of infection, the only real protection is through vaccination.
What vaccinations are available?
Many meningococcal strains have now been eliminated thanks to vaccination.
But not all vaccinations are free.
As of April 30, 2018, free vaccinations for W strain ended for all students in Year 10, 11 and 12 in public, private and Catholic high schools and colleges.
Vaccines are available for all strains but not all are supplied free by the Government. (ABC News: Sarah Collard)
Anyone can pay for a A, C, W, Y vaccination at any time from their GP and while many older teenagers will have received a meningococcal C vaccine before, it is not a barrier to them having the A, C, W, Y vaccine.
The B-strain is not covered on the National Immunisation Program. The vaccine against meningococcal-B is only available on private prescription with those with private health cover eligible for a rebate.
Dr Jones said doses for the strain can be quite expensive.
“It requires a number up to four doses with each injection costing up to $150 each,” she said.
What do you do if someone has symptoms?
The disease can develop very quickly. Getting medical help through your GP or at a hospital emergency department as early as possible is vital to survival.