7th Case of W strain diagnosed in Western Australia

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The Department of Health today reported that an adult is currently recovering in hospital after being diagnosed with serogroup W meningococcal disease.

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

There have now been twelve cases reported to date in 2018, comprising seven serogroup W, three serogroup B and two serogroup Y meningococcal infections.

A total of 46 meningococcal infections were notified in WA in 2017, double the number reported in 2016 and the most in any year since 2005. The 46 cases comprised 23 serogroup W, 9 serogroup Y, 12 serogroup B, and one serogroup C infection, along with a case in whom the type could not be determined. The numbers of serogroup W and Y cases in 2017 were well above the long term average of less than one case per year of each of these types, and the most ever recorded in WA.

The incidence of meningococcal disease had previously decreased significantly in WA – down from a peak of 86 cases in 2000 to a low of 16 cases in 2013 – but is now increasing again due to the emergence of new virulent strains of serogroup W, and to a lesser extent serogroup Y, meningococcal bacteria.

The Department of Health routinely identifies the close contacts of all notified cases of meningococcal disease and provides them with information and, where appropriate, antibiotics and a vaccine. This is to minimise the chance of further spread of the organism to others, should one or more of the contacts be carrying the strain that caused disease.

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

Meningococcal bacteria are not easily spread from person-to-person. The bacterium is present in droplets discharged from the nose and throat when coughing or sneezing, but is not spread by saliva and does not survive more than a few seconds in the environment.

Symptoms may include high fever, chills, headache, neck stiffness, nausea and vomiting, drowsiness, confusion, and severe muscle and joint pains. Young children may not complain of symptoms, so fever, pale or blotchy complexion, vomiting, lethargy (blank staring, floppiness, inactivity, being hard to wake, or poor feeding) and rash are important signs.

Sometimes – but not always – symptoms may be accompanied by the appearance of a spotty red-purple rash that looks like small bleeding points beneath the skin or bruises.

Although treatable with antibiotics, meningococcal infection can progress very rapidly, so it is important that anyone experiencing these symptoms seeks medical attention promptly. With appropriate treatment, most people with the disease recover, although around 5 to 10 per cent will die and around 15 per cent may experience complications such as hearing loss, or gangrene requiring skin grafts or amputations.

As a result of the increase in serogroup W and Y disease in WA over the past three years, several new vaccination programs have been initiated.

In 2017 WA became the first jurisdiction to provide a combination vaccine that protects against four strains of the organism (serogroups A, C, W and Y) to individuals aged 15-19 years.  In 2018 and 2019, this program is targeting incoming Year 10 students in schools, while other individuals aged 15-19 years can continue to access free catch-up vaccination through other immunisation providers.

In January 2018 WA once again led the nation by launching a state-funded MenACWY catch-up vaccination program for all children 1 to 4 years of age.

Finally, as of 1 July 2018, the MenACWY vaccine is being included at 12 months of age as a routine component of the National Immunisation Program.

The WA MenACWY catch-up vaccination program for children aged 1 to 4 years will continue until 31 December 2018, so parents wanting to protect their toddlers should contact their immunisation provider now.

Details of the 1 to 4 year old and adolescent (15-19 years) meningococcal ACWY vaccination programs, including where to access the free vaccine, are available at: HealthyWA (external site).

SOURCE: Dept of WA Health.

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