Public health warning as meningococcal cases detected in Cairns

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Three people have been confirmed with meningococcal disease in Cairns within the past week.

All three cases of the disease are associated with St Mary’s Catholic College. Two of the three people are being treated in Cairns Hospital.

Dr Richard Gair, Director and Public Health Physician at Tropical Public Health Services (Cairns), said that Meningococcal disease is caused by bacteria, not by a virus, and is transmitted by close contact.

'At any given time, meningococcal bacteria are carried by about 10% of the population harmlessly at the back of the throat or in the nose. The bacteria can be spread via droplets from the nose or throat during coughing and sneezing or close contact such as kissing,' he said.

Letters were sent to parents at the school on Monday 23 May to advise of a single case.  A further letter was sent on Wednesday 25 May to advise of the two additional cases and to inform parents of the risks, symptoms of the disease, what to do if they have any concerns as well as actions being taken to support the students and families.

Tropical Public Health Services (TPHS) is liaising closely with the school and will host a forum at the school on Thursday 26 May to provide more information and answer questions. Contact tracing has been undertaken and TPHS have provided antibiotics to close household contacts in line with the national guidelines.

From Thursday 26 May, antibiotics will be offered to students and staff in the school in case they are carrying the bacteria.

'Meningococcal disease is a relatively rare illness, however the disease can cause serious illness marked by a rapid deterioration,' Dr Gair said.

Meningococcal disease does not spread easily and outbreaks are uncommon in Far North Queensland. Environments where people are in close contact, such as day-care centres, school camps, parties and nightclubs, make it easier for the bacteria to spread.

There are many different strains of meningococcus – since the C-vaccine was introduced, the most common in Australia is now B. The meningococcal C vaccine provides good protection against strain C serogroups. The number of cases of C serogroups has decreased in Australia following the introduction of this vaccine. A meningococcal strain B vaccine is normally available in the private market. The strains have a different appearance to the body’s immune system, so immunity to one strain does not give immunity to another strain.

Children aged less than five years, particularly infants aged less than one year, have the highest incidence of invasive meningococcal disease caused by meningococcal B serogroups. A lower, secondary peak in incidence is seen in late adolescence and early adulthood. The infection can develop very quickly. If infection is diagnosed early enough and the right antibiotics are given quickly, most people make a complete recovery.

Even with antibiotic treatment, invasive meningococcal disease causes death in about five to 10 per cent of cases. Survival varies with the strain and age of the patient. Most cases occur suddenly and are unrelated to any other cases. Outbreaks where more than one person is affected are rare.

People should be vigilant and alert to the signs and symptoms which include:

  • rash
  • vomiting
  • fever
  • headache
  • confusion
  • stiff neck
  • joint pain

If concerned, people should seek immediate medical attention as early treatment with antibiotics can be life-saving.