HSE issues meningococcal disease warning

Increase in cases including three deaths
  • Deborah Condon

There has been a ‘noted increase' in cases of meningococcal disease in Ireland in the last two weeks, the HSE has warned.

Eleven cases were notified to the Health Protection Surveillance Centre (HPSC) in the last week of December 2018 and first week of January 2019, compared to five in the same period last year. Three of these patients have died and all three deaths were directly due to the disease.

Meningococcal disease is the most common form of bacterial meningitis in Ireland, causing up to 90% of all cases. The disease may present as meningitis, septicaemia (blood poisoning) or both.

Meningitis is a serious illness involving inflammation of the membranes covering the brain and spinal cord. It can be caused by a variety of different germs, mainly bacterial and viruses. Bacterial meningitis is less common but is usually more serious than viral meningitis and requires urgent treatment with antibiotics. It may be accompanied by septicaemia, which also requires urgent antibiotic treatment.

"Although meningococcal disease incidence generally increases in the winter months, the recent increase is cause for concern and the HSE wishes to alert the public to the signs and symptoms of this disease, so that immediate medical attention can be sought if someone has symptoms that could be caused by this bug," explained Dr Suzanne Cotter of the HPSC.

Signs and symptoms can include:
-Joint or muscle pain
-Fever, sometimes with cold hands and feet
-Severe headaches
-Rapid breathing
-Discomfort around bright light
-A stiff neck
-Stomach cramps
-A rash made up of tiny red pin pricks that may change to purple bruising. The rash does not fade under pressure, such as under a glass.

Meningococcal bacteria live naturally in the nose and throat of normal healthy people without causing illness, and the spread of the bacteria is caused by droplets from the nose and mouth. The illness occurs most frequently in young children and teenagers, usually as isolated cases.

Following an investigation, none of the patients identified with meningococcal disease in the last two weeks were found to have had contact or links with each other. The spread of meningococcal from person to person is very unusual, especially outside of close household contact, the HSE noted.

"If anyone has any concerns about meningitis they should ring their GP in the first instance. Meningitis and septicaemia often happen together and symptoms can appear in any order. Some may not appear at all. Early symptoms can include; fever, headache, vomiting, diarrhoea, muscle pain, stomach cramps, fever and a rash, but do not wait for the rash to appear. If someone is ill and getting worse, get medical help immediately," Dr Cotter said.

She also urged parents to ensure that their children are up to date with their childhood meningococcal vaccines.

A vaccine that protects against meningococcal C disease (MenC vaccine) is given at six months and at 13 months, while the meningococcal B vaccine (MenB vaccine) is given at two, four, and 12 months of age.

In addition, young people are routinely offered the MenC vaccine in the first year of secondary school. Older teenagers and young adults up to the age of 23 years who have never received a MenC vaccine are recommended to get it.

Meanwhile, vaccines that protect against other forms of meningitis and septicaemia are included in the routine child vaccination programme (Hib vaccine and pneumococcal vaccine (PCV)). Children who have missed vaccines can obtain them from their GPs.

For more information on meningococcal disease, click here


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