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Meningococcal cases in Northland: How to protect kids from dangerous infection

There are several vaccines available in New Zealand to protect children and adults from different meningococcal groups. Photo / 123rf A virologist...

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There are several vaccines available in New Zealand to protect children and adults from different meningococcal groups. Photo / 123rf

A virologist says vaccinating children against meningococcal is the best way to protect them from a dangerous bacterial infection.

Four children under the age of 5 contracted meningococcal B in the past month and had to be treated in hospital. One case was detected in the Far North, two in Whang─ürei and one in Kaipara.

While Northland health authority Te Whatu Ora Te Tai Tokerau says meningococcal cases are not unexpected at this time of year, Dr Helen Petousis-Harris, virologist associate professor from the Department of General Practice and Primary Health Care at the University of Auckland, says we could see more cases emerging.

“Meningococcal follow the tracks of the flu and other infectious diseases,” Petousis-Harris explained.

Because New Zealand had a two-year break due to closed borders with few infectious diseases going around, New Zealand is seeing an influx of infections which paves the path for meningococcal disease.

“I’d be concerned about a rise of numbers looking at what’s happening in Northland.”

Meningococcal disease can look like the flu in its early stages and can be difficult to diagnose, but it quickly gets much worse.

“It’s very hard to tell the difference between the flu and a meningococcal infection at the start,” Petousis-Harris said. “The second it goes through your head, go get it checked by a doctor.”

Babies and small children can have some or all of the following symptoms: fever, crying, unsettled, refusing drinks or feeds, vomiting, sleepy, floppy, harder to wake, stiff neck, dislike of bright lights, reluctant to walk, or developing a purple rash or red spots.

Teenagers and adults can get a fever, headache, vomiting, joint pains, aching muscles, stiff neck, dislike of bright lights, painful and red hot swollen joint or feel sleepy, confused, delirious and even become unconscious.

To check whether your baby or child has a stiff neck, gently push their chin towards their chest. If it’s painful for them, it might be a symptom for meningococcal disease.

The symptoms may not all show up at once, and the illness may either develop gradually over a few days, or much more quickly within a few hours.

Four children under the age of 5 had to be treated in hospital after contracting meningococcal B in the last month. Photo / Michael Cunningham
Four children under the age of 5 had to be treated in hospital after contracting meningococcal B in the last month. Photo / Michael Cunningham

Meningococcal disease is a bacterial infection that can affect anyone of any age, but children under 5, teenagers and young adults are more at risk.

People living in overcrowded households, people exposed to tobacco smoke, those with a weakened immune system and anyone with another type of respiratory infection are also more likely to contract meningococcal.

It can lead to two serious illnesses: meningitis which is an infection of membranes that cover the brain and septicaemia, a serious infection in the blood.

Some will develop both meningitis and septicaemia, others will have one or the other. It can lead to serious illness with long-term effects or death.

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, including the current cases in Northland.

Meningococcal disease can easily spread from person to person, especially through close contact, coughing and sneezing, sharing food, cutlery, toothbrushes or dummies, or through kissing.

It can be treated with antibiotics, but early treatment is very important.

Petousis-Harris said as a parent she would look at getting her children vaccinated to protect them.

“The Bexsero is available here which targets the B group and it’s pretty effective. It’s also reasonably effective against the W group.”

Bexsero can be used to protect people of all ages, including babies. Infants younger than 12 months need three doses; older children and adults need two doses to be protected.

Petousis-Harris said Bexsero provides long-lasting protection.

There are other types of vaccines available in New Zealand, however they target other meningococcal groups.

The meningococcal immunisation is not part of the childhood immunisation schedule and is not publicly funded meaning patients have to pay to get vaccinated with some exceptions for eligible people.

A single dose costs $96.50 and requires a prescription from your GP.

Petousis-Harris said because the vaccine isn’t funded those who are most at risk are less likely to be able to afford it. Immunising children across Northland region would be a “mammoth effort”.

Te Whatu Ora Te Tai Tokerau community paediatrician Dr Ailsa Tuck added that this immunisation is “certainly on the national radar and the immunisation schedule is constantly being reviewed and modified by the national technical advisory immunisation group that advises Pharmac”.

“There is a lot to consider, such as how effective the immunisation is and how long the immunity lasts.

“Meningococcal is complicated as you need two different immunisations to cover the main types in New Zealand. It is important that these decisions and discussions involve a wide range of experts.”

Tuck recommends talking to your general practitioner to discuss the relative benefit for your child and noting the cost involved.

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