What’s Behind The Rise Of Meningococcal Cases In Australia?

As of September 2022, there had been 86 confirmed cases of meningococcal, which is already more than the national total of 75 cases detected last year.

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The past year brought out us all out of lockdowns, and back into close proximity with one another.

That meant an uptick in dancing, singing, shouting, hugging, and kissing; which naturally brought an end to Australia’s record low flu cases during the pandemic.

But a more unexpected side effect of this return to normality was when cases of meningococcal started bumping up, particularly in those who had recently attended music festivals.

The Rise in Meningococcal Cases

Last month, a second person from NSW sadly died from meningococcal disease after attending Splendour in The Grass in July. He was a Sydney man in his 40s. 

Because of Australia’s vaccination program, it’s pretty rare to contract the serious and potentially fatal disease. Which is why so surprising that cases are on the up. By September 2022 Australia had 86 confirmed meningococcal cases, which is already more than the 75 detected in 2022.

So what’s causing the rise in cases in very young children, teenagers and people in their early 20s? And how can you protect yourself and friends this music festival season?

Why Are Cases On The Rise?

Professor Robert Booy, an Infectious Diseases Paediatrician at the University of Sydney, explains that there are several reasons behind the rise in cases.

“We’ve had a relaxation of rules around social distancing. We’ve had opening of the borders, we’ve had a lot more social gatherings where people get up close and personal: they hug, they sing, they shout, and they may even have a snog with someone,” he says.

“Now, if you are in a relationship and you are true to that one person, it’s not a big issue. It’s not a risk. But if you choose at a party to snog multiple people, then that poses a risk.”

“If you’re hanging around people who are smoking, they’re more likely to cough and pass meningococcal disease through the air. So that too is a risk,” he adds.

Professor Booy explains that kissing is a particular risk factor because meningococcus bacteria usually enters the bloodstream through the throat. For around 10 percent of the population, bacteria can live quite happily in the throat without causing symptoms, but they are the lucky few.

What Symptoms Should I Look Out For?

Meningococcal disease is caused by the meningococcal bacteria, also known as Neisseria meningitidis.

About ten percent of young people (including babies and children) who get meningococcal will sadly die from the disease, and 40 percent of children will experience ongoing complications; so early detection of the disease is essential.

There are two main ways the meningococcal disease can present itself in our bodies. The bacterial infection can either cause meningitis (inflammation of the lining around the brain), sepsis (blood poisoning), or both. 

“If it presents with blood poisoning, it involves the skin going mottled, the hands and feet feeling cold, and then a rash later develops — purple or red dots, which if you press a clear glass against it, the colour doesn’t go away,” describes Professor Booy.

That infamous meningococcal rash is a result of petechiae in the skin, Professor Booy explained. Petechiae are the pin prick or round spots that appear as a result of bleeding occurring underneath the skin.

Professor Booy adds that patients also typically develop high fevers that don’t barely respond to Panadol, while also experiencing pain the legs and gut.

“So that’s the harbinger —  the thing to look out for if you might have blood poisoning.”

As we mentioned above, the other form meningococcal presents itself is with meningitis — “inflammation and infection of the lining of the brain” that causes an especially bad headache, what Professor Booy describes as “maybe the worst you’ve ever head.”

“You get a stiff neck, you get a dislike of bright lights, a high fever, vomiting.”

Professor Boy stresses that when symptoms like these crop up, young people should trust their instincts. In other words, if you’re feeling really awful, then hot footing it to a doctor could potentially save your life. “Meningococcal disease develops over hours or a few days. So pay attention to your symptoms.”

Staying Alert This Festival Season

Between 2020 and 2021, both influenza and meningococcal cases were the lowest they’d been in a long time.

Once restrictions were put in place, there were on average less than seven cases of meningococcal per month for the rest of 2020. Before lockdown there were almost double that amount of cases, just in the month of February alone.

Now that we’ve returned to enjoying live music, Professor Booy said there are lots of things that young people can do to protect themselves and their friends.

“Look out for your friends,” he stresses. ‘If [you] think they’ve got a hangover, they may actually have early meningococcal disease with fever and reduced consciousness and the early makings of a headache.”

“Minimise your risks by social distancing as you should for COVID. The same thing that prevents COVID also prevents [the] distribution of bacteria like the meningococcus, like the streptococcus, the pneumococcus.”

If you only had [Meningococcal] C vaccination 20 years ago, you should consider yourself still at potential risk because there’s A, W, Y and there’s B. So if you want to protect yourself, you can have a conversation with your GP as to how to do that.”

If you are worried that you or someone you care for has meningococcal disease; please urgently see a GP, go to your nearest emergency department, or call 000.