Meningococcal disease is any infection caused by meningococcal bacteria, also known as Neisseria meningitidis. These bacteria can cause life-threatening infections of the brain (meningitis) and the blood (septicaemia). Vaccines (immunisation) can protect against some strains of meningococcal disease. The National Immunisation Program provides immunisations against meningococcal C bacteria. Serious side effects or allergic reactions to the vaccine are rare.
Meningococcal disease is any infection caused by bacterium called Neisseria meningitides (also known as meningococcal bacteria). Although meningococcal disease is uncommon, it is very serious. Invasive meningococcal disease occurs when bacteria that usually live in the throat enter the blood stream to cause septicaemia (infection in the blood) or meningitis, (inflammation of the membrane covering of the brain).
There are different types (serogroups) of meningococcal bacteria, but serogroup B and C cause most cases in Victoria. Meningococcal serogroups A, C, Y and W cause disease in other countries such as Africa.
The meningococcal C vaccine provides good protection against serogroup C strains. The number of cases caused by the C serogroup bacteria has decreased following the introduction of the immunisation program in Australia. A combined vaccine against serogroups A, C, W, and Y is also available for people who are at high risk of these bacterial strains.
There is no vaccination currently available in Australia for serogroup B, although there is a potential vaccine in the late stages of development.
Immunisation against meningococcal disease
Immunisation against meningococcal group C bacteria is the best protection against this form of meningococcal disease. It is important to know that even if you have had meningococcal disease, you do not have immunity and should still be immunised.
Protection against meningococcal group C disease caused by the serogroup C strain of bacteria is available under the National Immunisation Program Schedule. In Victoria, immunisation is free of charge for:
- Children at 12 months – the immunisation against meningococcal serogroup C is given in combination with the booster dose of vaccine against Haemophilus influenza type B (Hib).
- Children from 13 months up to and including four years – catch-up immunisations are available for children who have not been fully vaccinated.
In addition to the vaccine against meningococcal C bacteria, there is also a combined vaccine against serogroups A, C, Y and W bacteria that is particularly useful for travellers. These vaccinations are not necessarily free of charge.
Speak to your doctor about which vaccine you should have (and how long you will have immunity) if you are in one of the following high-risk groups including:
- people who have close household contact with those who have meningococcal group C disease and who have not been vaccinated
- people who are travelling to places, such as Africa, that have epidemics caused by serogroups A, C, W and Y bacteria
- pilgrims to the annual Hajj in Saudi Arabia – Saudi Arabian authorities require a valid certificate of vaccination to enter the country
- people who work in a laboratory and who handle the meningococcal bacteria
- children aged nine months and over and adults who have high-risk conditions such as the lack of a spleen or a spleen without adequate function or a complement component disorder or treatment for a complement disorder
- people who have had a haematopoietic stem cell transplant.
Pregnancy and meningococcal disease immunisation
Meningococcal vaccines are not usually recommended for women who are pregnant or breastfeeding but they might be given if your doctor thinks your situation puts you at risk of the disease.
Before immunisation, tell your doctor or nurse if you (or your child):
- are unwell on the day of immunisation (have temperature over 38.5° C)
- have ever had a serious reaction to any vaccine
- have had a serious reaction to any component of the vaccine
- have had a severe allergy to anything
- are pregnant or breastfeeding.
Side effects of the meningococcal C vaccine
Vaccines against Hib and meningococcal bacteria are effective and safe, although all medications can have unwanted side effects.
Side effects from these vaccines are uncommon and are usually mild, but may include:
- localised pain, redness and swelling at the injection site
- occasionally, an injection-site lump (nodule) that may last many weeks, but treatment is not needed
- low-grade temperature (fever)
- children can be unsettled, irritable, may cry, or be generally unhappy, drowsy and tired.
Managing fever after immunisation
Common side effects following immunisation are usually mild and temporary (occurring in the first few days after immunisation). Specific treatment is not usually required.
There are a number of treatment options that can reduce the side effects of the vaccine including:
- drinking extra fluids and not overdressing if there is a fever
- although routine use of paracetamol after vaccination is not recommended, if fever is present, paracetamol can be given – check the label for the correct dose or speak with your pharmacist, (especially when giving paracetamol to children).
Managing injection site discomfort
Many vaccine injections may result in soreness, redness, itching, swelling or burning at the injection site for one to two days. Paracetamol might be required to ease the discomfort.
Concerns about side effects
If the side effect following immunisation is unexpected, persistent or severe or if you are worried about yourself or your child’s condition after a vaccination, see your doctor or immunisation nurse as soon as possible or go directly to a hospital. Immunisation side effects may be reported to SAEFVIC, the Victorian vaccine safety and central reporting service.
You can discuss with your immunisation provider how to report adverse events in other states or territories. It is also important to seek medical advice if you (or your child) are unwell, as this may be due to other illness rather than because of the vaccination.
Rare side effects
There is a very small risk of a serious allergic reaction (anaphylaxis) to any vaccine. This is why you are advised to stay at the clinic or medical surgery for at least 15 minutes following immunisation in case further treatment is required. If any other reactions are severe and persistent, or if you are worried, contact your doctor for further information.
Immunisation and HALO
The immunisations you may need are decided by your health, age, lifestyle and occupation. Together, these factors are referred to as HALO.
Talk to your doctor or immunisation provider if you think you or someone in your care has health, age, lifestyle or occupation factors that could mean immunisation is necessary. You can check your immunisation HALO using the downloadable poster.
Where to get help
- Your doctor
- In an emergency, always call triple zero (000)
- Emergency department of your nearest hospital
- Your local government immunisation service
- Maternal and Child Health Line (24 hours) Tel. 132 229
- NURSE-ON-CALL Tel. 1300 60 60 24 – for expert health information and advice (24 hours, 7 days)
- Immunisation Program, Department of Health, Victorian Government Tel. 1300 882 008
- National Immunisation Information Line Tel. 1800 671 811
- Your local pharmacist
- SAEFVIC Tel. (03) 9345 4143 – the line is attended between 10 am and 3.30 pm and you can leave a message at all other times
Things to remember
- Meningococcal C vaccine provides good protection against serogroup C strain of meningococcal bacteria.
- There is no vaccination currently available in Australia for serogroup B, although a vaccine is being developed.
- Immunisation against meningococcal serogroups A, C, W and Y is available, especially for travellers to areas of the world where these bacteria cause widespread meningococcal disease.
- The National Immunisation Program provides immunisations for children at 12 months of age against meningococcal disease caused by the C serogroup.
- Common immunisation side effects are usually mild and temporary (occurring in the first few days after vaccination) and do not require specific treatment.
You might also be interested in:
- Immune system.
- Immunisation - childhood.
- Immunisation - facts and misconceptions.
- Meningococcal disease.
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Last reviewed: May 2013
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