Meningococcal Disease

Meningococcal Disease

Babies and children with meningococcal disease can get sick very quickly. Take your child to a doctor urgently if they appear very ill, especially if there is a rash.


Key points to remember about meningococcal disease

  • meningococcal disease is a bacterial infection
  • it causes severe illness
  • babies and children with meningococcal disease can get sick very quickly
  • meningococcal disease can be difficult to diagnose in its early stages
  • check babies or children often when they are sick
  • take your child to a doctor urgently if they appear very ill, especially if there is a rash 
  • take your child back to your doctor urgently if they get worse
  • know about the early symptoms of meningococcal disease and teach teenagers about these too
  • know where to seek help after hours and how to get there
  • early treatment can save lives

What is meningococcal disease?

Meningococcal disease is an infection caused by a bacteria, and can lead to 2 very serious illnesses:

  • meningitis (an infection of membranes that cover the brain)
  • septicaemia (a serious infection in the blood)

There are several different types of meningococcal bacteria including A, B, C, Y and W.

  • most cases in New Zealand are caused by group B
  • the next most common groups are W, Y and C
  • there have previously been limited outbreaks of meningococcal disease due to group A

How common is meningococcal disease?

Between 2013 and 2017, there were between 45 and 112 cases of meningococcal disease each year in New Zealand.

It's more common in winter and spring. The highest rates of meningococcal disease occur in children aged under 5 years and young people aged 15 to 19 years. But, people of any age can be affected.

How is meningococcal disease spread?

Meningococcal disease can easily be passed from one person to another.

The bacteria can be spread through close contact such as:

  • living in the same household
  • coughing and sneezing
  • kissing, sharing food and drink

Why do only some people exposed to meningococcal bacteria get sick?

At any one time, some people will carry meningococcal bacteria in their nose and throat without getting sick.

It is not known why some people who come into contact with meningococcal bacteria get sick and others don’t.

Who is most at risk of catching meningococcal disease?

  • meningococcal disease can affect anyone, but those under 20 years of age are at greatest risk
  • rates of the disease among Māori and Pacific peoples are higher than for other ethnic groups
  • all babies under the age of one, and Māori and Pacific children under 5 years old have the highest risk
  • teenagers and young adults living in halls of residence and flatting are also at increased risk of the disease

What are the signs and symptoms of meningococcal disease?

Symptoms may appear in any order and some may not appear at all.

In the early stages of meningococcal disease, symptoms may seem similar to those of the flu or any other viral infection. The disease can develop very quickly and is difficult to diagnose.

It's important to be aware of the symptoms so you can get medical help straightaway - whether it's day or night.

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

Know about the early symptoms of meningococcal disease and take action if you are concerned.

Get urgent medical help if your child has one or more of the symptoms below.

Symptoms in a baby or child who has meningococcal disease

  • have a fever (may also have cool hands and feet, or shivering)
  • be crying or unsettled
  • refuse drinks or feeds
  • vomit
  • be sleepy or floppy or harder to wake
  • dislike bright lights
  • have a stiff neck
  • have red or purple spots or bruises on the skin (see the photo but be aware only 1 in 3 children with meningococcal disease have a rash)

An ear with meningoccal rash on an ear

Symptoms in an older child or adult who has meningococcal disease

  • have a fever or a headache
  • have a stiff neck
  • have joint pain and aching muscles
  • vomit
  • be sleepy, confused, delirious or unconscious
  • dislike bright lights
  • have red or purple spots or bruises on the skin (see the photo above but be aware only 1 in 3 children/adults with meningococcal disease have a rash)

When should I seek help for my child's meningococcal disease?

Don't wait - take action

If your child has one or more of the symptoms of meningococcal disease:

  • act immediately
  • ring a doctor, after hours medical centre or Healthline (0800 611 116) right away - whether it is night or day
  • if it is an emergency, call 111 within New Zealand and ask for an ambulance (use the appropriate emergency number in other countries)
  • say what the symptoms are
  • insist on immediate action - don't be put off - a life may be at risk
  • watch your child, even if they have already been checked by a doctor - ask your doctor what to look out for
  • go straight back to a doctor if your child gets worse
  • do not leave your child alone

What treatments are available for meningococcal disease?

Early treatment of meningococcal disease with antibiotics is very important because it can save lives and reduce the effects of the disease.

Can meningococcal disease be prevented?

Once the healthcare team diagnose meningococcal disease in someone, they give antibiotics to close contacts of that person. This treatment clears the organism from their throat and prevents the spread of meningococcal disease from person to person.

Immunisation for meningococcal disease

You can watch a video of a family's experience of meningococcal C disease. In the 5 hours between waking at 3am with a headache and 8am when her family had gathered at Palmerston North Hospital, 18-year-old Letitia (Tesh) Gallagher's body had battled meningococcal C disease and lost.

Watch the video about a family's experience of meningococcal C disease

A photo of a teenage girl

Several vaccines are available which protect against different groups of meningococcal disease - A, B, C, Y and W. Meningococcal immunisation is not free (except for a few people with rare conditions), but you can pay for it through your family doctor.

Meningococcal immunisation is also funded for close contacts after a recent proven case of meningococcal disease, or to contain an outbreak.

Meningococcal immunisation is also recommended, but not funded, for:

  • adolescents and young people living in or moving to communal living such as boarding houses, university hostels or military accommodation
  • people with sickle cell anaemia or terminal complement deficiencies or HIV
  • military recruits
  • microbiologists and laboratory workers who could be exposed to meningococcal bacteria
  • travellers to regions where this disease is common such as travellers to Hajj or people travelling to sub-Saharan Africa

For more information about meningococcal immunisation please talk with your doctor and look at the websites below.

Are there complications of meningococcal disease?

For every 100 people who get the disease, 5 to 10 will die. Another 20 are likely to be left with some degree of serious disability, such as brain damage, deafness, loss of limbs or damaged skin. A further proportion is left with learning or behavioural difficulties.

While New Zealand has had a high rate of meningococcal disease, it has had a low death rate compared to other countries. This is partly due to high awareness of the disease and the importance of seeking urgent medical attention, and to early treatment.

Between 2013 and 2017, there were between 2 and 9 deaths from meningococcal disease each year in New Zealand.


This content has been produced by the Paediatric Society of New Zealand in collaboration with the Immunisation Team, Ministry of Health.

Photo by D. Scott Smith, MD, taken at Stanford University Hospital.

This page last reviewed 29 November 2018.

Call Healthline on 0800 611 116 any time of the day or night for free health advice when you need it