Outbreak of deadly disease includes Katherine

The Northern Territory has seen a rise in meningococcal infection with 17 cases so far this year.

Meningococcal disease is an uncommon, life-threatening illness due to a bacterial infection of the blood and/or the membranes that line the spinal cord and brain and occasionally infect other sites, such as large joints.

Most of the meningococcal W infections in the NT have occurred in Aboriginal children living in Katherine, central Australia and Barkly regions.

Most of these cases are serogroup W which has recently risen across Australia.

Ten are definite serogroup W with five awaiting final laboratory testing but likely to be serogroup W.

There has been a rapid increase in meningococcal W disease in the month of September with 10 cases of confirmed or probable serogroup W reported.

In comparison, the total number of all meningococcal cases reported in the NT was 3 in 2016, 1 in 2015 and 4 in 2014.

The NT Department of Health has identified the close contacts of these cases and provided appropriate antibiotics and a vaccine to minimise the chance that the organism might be passed on to others.

In addition, the NT Department of Health is mounting a coordinated immunisation program – working with the Aboriginal community-controlled health sector - to offer vaccination against the meningococcal serogroups A,C,W,Y to all Aboriginal people aged between 12 months and 19 years in Katherine West, Central Australia and Barkly regions.

This age group targets those most at risk of serious illness and those who are most likely to be carrying the meningococcal bacteria.

NT Department of Health will also add a meningococcal vaccination against serogroups A,C,W,Y for all 12 month old children onto the NT immunisation schedule in early 2018.

Meningococcal disease is rare but can be very severe, and infected people can become unwell quickly.

Meningococcal bacteria are not easily spread from person-to-person and only passed by close and prolonged contact.

Meningococcal bacteria are carried harmlessly in the back of the nose and throat by about 10 - 20 percent of the population at any one time. Very rarely, the bacteria invade the bloodstream and cause serious infections

Centre for Disease Control Acting Director Charles Douglas said “It’s important to be aware of the symptoms including fever, a stiff neck, severe headache, confusion, difficulty looking at bright lights, vomiting, sore muscles or joints, drowsiness or a rash, and seek medical advice.” 

“Meningococcal infection is treatable with antibiotics, but the infection can progress very rapidly, so it is important that anyone experiencing these symptoms seeks medical attention promptly.”

“To reduce the likelihood of further cases in the NT, I encourage those in the high risk groups for infection (Aboriginal people aged between 12 months and 19 years in Katherine West, Central Australia and Barkly regions) to attend their local clinic and get immunised once the program is being rolled out to protect themselves and their community.”

Those who are not in the high risk groups can see their local health clinic or GP to discuss the need for vaccination and private purchase of the meningococcal vaccine if required.