Many people have heard stories of families they know being severely impacted by meningococcal disease. Although rare, the consequences can be devastating, including death or serious long-term disabilities like brain damage, deafness or loss of limbs.

Meningococcal disease is caused by bacteria strains called meningococcus (or Neisseria meningitidis). The bacteria cause the membranes that cover the brain and spinal cord to become inflamed.

A new campaign is asking if we ‘know meningococcal’. To gain an insight into how the disease has changed the lives of some Australian families, visit, or read on to learn more.

Meningococcal disease is contagious, often being transmitted through close contact with mucus from an infected person. The germs are carried harmlessly in the nose or throat of between 10% and 20% of the community. Most people who have these bacteria in their throat or nose (carriers) remain quite well, but they are able to spread the bacteria to others and a few of these people may subsequently become ill .

Teens and young adults are at a highest risk of contracting meningococcal disease due to close contact with school and university friends and shared housing arrangements. 

The classic symptoms of meningococcal disease are a rash, stiff neck and fever, but other symptoms include:

  • Headache
  • Nausea or vomiting
  • Diarrhoea
  • Sensitivity to bright light
  • Confusion and drowsiness
  • Aching muscles
  • Painful and swollen joints
  • Difficulty talking
  • Fits or twitching (in young children)

Many of these symptoms can resemble other illnesses such as influenza or a cold, making it difficult to identify meningococcal disease. However, early detection is crucial, as the disease progresses rapidly. After exposure to the bacteria, it generally takes three to four days for the illness to appear, although sometimes it can be as little as one day or as long as 10 days. In some cases, the infection can cause serious disability or death within 24 hours.  

Treatment with antibiotics in a hospital setting in the early stages of the disease will offer the best chance at minimising the damage caused by the infection. 

Long-term effects of the disease can include:

  • Loss of arms and legs – limb amputation
  • Deformities of arms and legs
  • Joint aches and stiffness
  • Headaches
  • Scarring of the skin
  • Ringing in the ears (tinnitus)
  • Deafness in one or both ears
  • Blindness
  • Learning difficulties
  • Kidney or liver failure

Although it is quite rare, meningococcal disease may be fatal for up to one in ten of those infected. Furthermore, around one in five may suffer from serious long-term disabilities as a result of contracting the disease.  

Close contacts of a person with meningococcal disease have an increased risk of also developing the disease. As a precaution, close contacts may be prescribed a short course of antibiotics to get rid of any meningococcal bacteria they may be carrying in their throat or nose.

Vaccination is the greatest form of protection against the detrimental outcomes of meningococcal disease. Currently, there are two available vaccines – one protects against the A, C, W and Y strains of the disease and the other protects against the B strain. Vaccination is also recommended for any recent close contacts of people infected with the strains of meningococcal disease which are preventable through vaccination.

Here at AusTrials, we are studying a new investigational vaccine to prevent meningococcal disease. Visit our ‘current studies’ page for further information, call 07 3278 5255, or email

Potential participants under 18 years must be accompanied by a parent or a legal guardian at all study visits, who must consent to study participation.