Silent killer stalking

MENINGOCOCCAL ? just the word alone is enough to make you sit up and listen.

Now is the peak season for meningococcal disease and the North Coast Area Health Service (NCAHS) is reminding Coffs Coast residents to be on alert.

Already a number of cases have been reported this year, and people should be aware of the early signs and symptoms, according to manager of communicable disease Sean Gibney.

"Cases of meningococcal disease generally increase each year in late winter and early spring. The condition is rare and not easily spread," Mr Gibney said.

Between 1994 and 2004, an average of 10 cases per year occurred in the Northern Rivers and the Mid North Coast regions.

People of all ages can be susceptible to the infection, but most cases occur in young children and young adults.

"Meningococcal disease is an infection caused by a bacterial germ known as meningococcus. Up to 10 per cent of healthy people carry the bacteria in their throat or nose without the bacteria causing illness," he said.

The disease is spread by transferring meningococcal-infected secretions in the back of the throat. Illness occurs when the bacteria invade the blood stream (causing septicemia) and sometimes the lining of the brain (causing meningitis).

"Early diagnosis and treatment with antibiotics in most cases leads to complete recovery. However the disease can be life threatening with up to 10 per cent of patients dying."

Mr Gibney stressed 'being alert to the early symptoms of the disease and seeking prompt medical attention' is essential to successful treatment.

Typical symptoms may include sudden onset of fever, headache, tiredness, neck stiffness, vomiting or nausea, sore eyes sensitive to light, joint pain and a rash.

"Symptoms are often less specific in young children and may include fever, drowsiness, vomiting, being unsettled, refusing feeds and a rash. "

Mr Gibney said the rash is quite distinctive and may look like bleeding into the skin or purple-red spots. However, a rash does not always appear.

There are 13 different types of meningococcal bacteria, but the majority of cases in NSW are caused by type B and C.

A meningococcal type C vaccination is now on the NSW immunisation schedule and is given to all children at 12 months of age.

This vaccine is also available for adults from a general practitioner but is not free. A vaccine is not currently available for meningococcal type B.

Anyone experiencing the signs and symptoms of meningococcal disease should seek medical attention as soon as possible.

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