What is Meningococcal disease?

Meningococcal disease is a serious bacterial infection that can cause:

  • meningitis (an infection of the membranes that cover the brain)
  • septicaemia (when bacteria enter the bloodstream causing blood poisoning)

Children under 5 years old are at particular risk, but it can affect people of all ages.

What causes meningococcal disease?

Meningococcal disease is caused by the bacteria Neisseria meningitidis. There are several different strains or groups of meningococcal bacteria including Groups A, B, C, Y and W. The most common group causing infection in recent years in New Zealand has been Group B. All the above groups of the disease can occasionally occur in outbreaks.

What are the signs and symptoms?

Meningococcal disease symptoms may include some or all of the following:

  • high fever
  • headache
  • vomiting
  • refusal of feeds (in infants)
  • sleepiness
  • a stiff neck
  • dislike of bright lights
  • joint and muscle pains
  • a rash which looks like small purple or red spots.  This rash will be non-blanching which means that when you press on it, it does not fade.   

Visit The Meningitis Foundation website for more information on signs and symptoms.

These symptoms can very rapidly progress to death or lead to permanent disability such as deafness or disfigurement. If you are concerned about a friend or family member and think their symptoms may be meningitis, seek the advice of a medical professional immediately.

How does it spread?

The bacteria are spread through contact with respiratory secretions (such as saliva or phlegm) by coughing and sneezing. Smoking, passive smoking and household crowding also increase the chance of spreading the infection.

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.

For unknown reasons, 5-15% of people have meningococcal bacteria in their nose and throat naturally, without becoming unwell.  

How is meningococcal disease diagnosed and treated?

Early diagnosis and treatment are very important. The diagnosis is usually made by growing bacteria from a sample of spinal fluid or blood. It may take a few days to grow the bacteria so a doctor will usually start treatment with antibiotics straight away if they are suspicious of meningococcal infection.

What is the risk to close contacts of meningococcal disease cases?

The risk to contacts is generally low.  Although meningococcal disease is infectious, most cases have no known links to any other cases.

However, people considered to be close contacts, such as other household members, may be more at risk than the general population. 

Close contacts of someone with meningococcal disease may need antibiotics to help stop the disease from spreading. The Medical Officer of Health (public health doctor) will make sure that any close contacts are assessed, receive relevant advice, and antibiotics are provided when required. For some strains of meningococcal disease vaccination may also be offered to close contacts.

It is important to remember that the type of antibiotics given to close contacts kill the bacteria that live in the nose and throat, but they do not prevent illness in someone where the infection is already spreading to other parts of the body. Therefore, even when antibiotics are given, it is still important for close contacts to look out for early signs and symptoms of septicaemia and meningitis.


There are a number of vaccines available to protect against the five different groups of meningococcal disease – A, C, W, Y and B. Some are free for people at greater risk of disease. Some vaccines are suitable for young babies, while others are only given to older children and adults.

The vaccines usually protect for around 3 to 5 years. This means that even if you have been immunised before, you may no longer be protected against the disease. So it’s important that you know the signs and symptoms of meningococcal disease, and get medical help quickly if you’re concerned.

Learn more about meningococcal vaccines

Further information

Health New Zealand | Te Whatu Ora

Immunisation Advisory Centre


For more information contact a Health Protection Officer at Toi Te Ora Public Health, free phone 0800 221 555.