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Meningococcal disease is a rare but potentially life-threatening disease caused by the meningococcus bacterium. There are several strains of the bacterium, and the peak period for infection occurs in winter and early spring. In Australia, approximately 62 per cent of cases are caused by group B, for which there is no vaccine at present, while about 32 per cent of cases are caused by group C.
The highest incidence of the disease occurs in two age groups: 0 ?4 years, and 15?25 years. In 2001, there were about 35 deaths in Australia, from approximately 670 reported cases. Most fatal cases are caused by the group C strain, and a National Meningococcal C Vaccination Program was commenced in 2003, with the aim of providing free immunisations, over the next four years, to all children up to the age of 19.
Up to 10 per cent of the population is believed to carry the bacteria at the back of the throat or in the nose, and the disease is generally spread by close contact ? coughing or sneezing, kissing, or sharing drinks or food.
There are two main forms of the disease:
meningococcal meningitis, in which the membrane surrounding the brain and spinal cord is inflamed;
meningococcal septicaemia, (the form causing the most fatalities), in which the bacteria enters the bloodstream.
Symptoms of meningococcal disease include fever, headache, a stiff neck, and possibly vomiting, drowsiness or confusion, sensitivity to light, and a rash which does not fade when pressed firmly with a drinking glass. If meningococcal disease is suspected, immediate medical attention should be sought.
Early treatment with antibiotics is essential, as the disease can progress very quickly. Generally, antibiotics are also given to those people who have been in close contact with the patient, as a preventative measure.
Patients require hospital care, but most can be expected to recover completely if treatment is started soon enough. However, in some cases there can be permanent disability [such as loss of limbs in patients with meningococcal septicaemia] or even death.
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