Officials at South Australia Health (SA Health) reported three people have been diagnosed with meningococcal disease in the past week in South Australia. So far this year there have been 11 cases of meningococcal infection.

Image/SA Health
Image/SA Health

This compares to seven cases at the same time last year and 30 for all of 2015.

Adelaide Now reports: Of the 11 cases this year, 10 have been the meningococcal serogroup B strain, which is not covered on the national vaccine register, prompting calls for it to be added to the list. Health Minister Jack Snelling said the federal government should give “careful consideration” to adding the serogroup B strain vaccine. “In the meantime, probably the most important thing is for parents to speak to their local GP about whether it is advised to have that particular vaccination for meningococcal B,” he said.

Health officials note the infections have affected patients from age one to age 94.

Meningococcal disease is a severe infection caused by the meningococcus which may result in: meningitis (inflammation of the lining of the brain and spinal cord), septicemia (infection of the blood), joint infection, eye infection, pneumonia (lung infection or inflammation) and a rash.

Septicemia from meningococcal disease can cause shock and death within hours of the onset of symptoms. In Australia, 5 to 10% of people with meningococcal disease die, despite rapid treatment.

Meningococcal disease can affect all age groups, but is most common in children under 5 years of age and in young adults (15 to 24 years). Meningococcal disease can occur throughout the year but is most common in winter and spring. Outbreaks can occur, but are rare.

The meningococcus is carried, usually harmlessly, in the nose and throat of around 10% of the population (‘carriers’), with higher carriage in some specific groups. The meningococcus is spread when an infected person (patient or carrier) talks, coughs or sneezes small droplets containing infectious agents into the air. The droplets in the air may be breathed in by those nearby. The meningococcus is also spread by close contact with nose or throat secretions, for example during deep kissing. However, only a very small number of people in close contact with carriers develop meningococcal disease. Meningococcal disease occurs when the bacteria ‘invade’ the body from the throat or nose.

Contact with saliva from the front of the mouth (for example, from sharing drinks or cigarettes) has not been shown to cause meningococcal disease.

Even though it is hard to catch and uncommon, meningococcal disease is a feared infection, often featured in the media.

Cigarette smoking, both active and passive, appears to increase the risk of a person developing meningococcal disease. This is yet another reason to stop smoking and for adults not to smoke near young children.

A person with suspected meningococcal disease must be treated immediately with an injection of antibiotics and transferred urgently to hospital.