Meningococcal disease

Meningococcal disease is a bacterial infection that causes two very serious illnesses: meningitis (an infection of the membranes that cover the brain) and septicemia (blood poisoning).


Meningococcal disease can cause death or permanent disability, such as deafness.

It can affect anyone – but it’s more common in children under the age of 5, teenagers, and young adults. Students in their first year of tertiary education living in student accommodation may also be at higher risk.

It’s important to know the signs and symptoms of the meningococcal disease because it can develop very quickly (see the Symptoms tab). It can be treated with antibiotics, but early treatment is very important.


How is it spread?

Meningococcal bacteria are difficult to catch as they don’t live for very long outside of the body. They pass from one person to another through secretions from the nose or throat, during close or prolonged contact, for example:

  • by coughing or sneezing (by droplet spread)

  • by kissing

  • by sharing eating or drinking utensils, toothbrushes, pacifiers.

Basic steps like covering your nose or mouth when you sneeze or cough, and washing and drying your hands can help reduce the chance of spreading the bacteria that can cause illness.


Who is most at risk?

Anyone can potentially get meningococcal disease, but, it is more common in:

  • babies and young children

  • teenagers and young adults

  • people with a weak immune system – for example those having chemotherapy treatment or have HIV

  • close contacts of meningococcal disease cases (eg, same household)

  • those having other respiratory infections (eg, flu)

  • people living in shared accommodation such as halls of residence (university), boarding school and hostels

  • those living in overcrowded housing

  • those exposed to tobacco smoke.

It is possible to get meningitis more than once.


Meningococcal bacteria

Meningococcal disease is caused by the bacterium Neisseria meningitides. There are several different groups of meningococcal bacteria including groups A, B, C, Y and W (previously called W135). These groups of bacteria can be further divided into specific strains.

  • Up to 15% of people carry the bacteria that cause meningococcal disease in their nose and throat without being sick. In some people, for reasons we don’t fully understand, these bacteria sometimes go on to cause disease, spreading through the bloodstream (causing blood poisoning) or to the brain (causing meningitis).



Meningococcal disease can be difficult to diagnose because it can look like other illnesses, such as the flu.

Symptoms of meningitis can develop suddenly and include:

  • a high fever

  • headache

  • sleepiness

  • joint and muscle pains.

There can also be some more specific symptoms, such as:

  • a stiff neck

  • dislike of bright lights

  • vomiting

  • crying

  • refusal to feed (in infants)

  • a rash consisting of reddish-purple pin-prick spots or bruises.


What to do

  • If you or anyone in your family has these symptoms, call your doctor straight away or dial 111.

  • Say what the symptoms are.

  • If you have seen a doctor and gone home, but are still concerned, don't hesitate to call your doctor again or seek further medical advice. Don’t be put off. Insist on immediate action.



Meningococcal disease can develop very quickly.

It’s important to be aware of the symptoms so you can get medical help straight away – whether it’s day or night.

Meningococcal disease can be treated with antibiotics – but early treatment is very important.



Meningococcal disease bacteria can be spread from person-to-person through secretions and respiratory droplets.


  • cover your nose or mouth when you sneeze or cough and wash and dry your hands

  • avoid sharing eating or drinking utensils, toothbrushes, pacifiers.



Several vaccines are available which protect against different groups of meningococcal disease – A, C, Y and W135, and B. These vaccines aren’t free, but they’re available for private purchase through general practices if people want them. Two meningococcal vaccines (for group C and groups A, C, Y, and W135) are funded for some people.

Meningococcal immunization may also be funded by local district health boards for public health purposes such as a disease outbreak.


Who should have the meningococcal vaccine

Some meningococcal vaccines are recommended and available free for individuals:

  • who have had or are having an operation to partly or completely remove the spleen (splenectomy)

  • with a spleen doesn’t work properly (functional asplenia)

  • with HIV, complement deficiency (acquired or inherited) or who are pre- or post-solid organ transplant

  • who are bone marrow transplant patients

  • following immunosuppression

  • who are close contacts of cases of meningococcal disease.

They are also recommended, but not funded, for:

  • young people going to communal accommodation (eg, flatting, boarding school, correctional facilities) for the first time

  • military recruits

  • microbiologists and laboratory workers who could be exposed to meningococcal bacteria

  • travelers to regions where this disease is common – in particular people participating in the hajj, and people traveling to sub-Saharan Africa (the so-called ‘Meningitis Belt’).

Check with your health professional whether they have the vaccine in stock before making an appointment to get vaccinated against meningococcal disease.



There are a number of meningococcal vaccines that protect against different strains of the disease but none of them provide long-term protection. The vaccines listed below tend to last around 3–5 years. 

Even if you have been immunized in the past you may still not be protected against the disease. It’s important therefore that you’re aware of the signs and symptoms of meningococcal disease and seeks medical advice quickly if you’re concerned.


Meningococcal B vaccine

Possible reactions to meningococcal vaccines

Common side effects of vaccines

  • Soreness/pain, redness and/or swelling around the injection site

  • Mild fever - paracetamol is recommended for use with Bexsero to reduce the risk of high fever and injection site pain

  • Decreased appetite, nausea, vomiting and/or diarrhea

  • Irritability

  • Headache

  • Fatigue, malaise, drowsiness

Uncommon side effects vaccine

  • Dizziness

Rare/very rare side effects of the vaccine

  • Anaphylaxis (severe allergic reaction)

  • Urticaria (allergic skin reaction)

Serious reactions are rare.


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