A swift and deadly foe

By Siouxsie Wiles 02/08/2011

I’ve just read in the NZ Herald that the chief executive of the construction company Fulton Hogan died suddenly and unexpectedly at the weekend, apparently within hours of contracting an aggressive meningococcal infection.

The bug responsible, Neisseria meningitidis, is a pretty nasty one and the symptoms of infection can often be fatally mistaken for flu. N. meningitidis can cause both meningitis, where bacteria attack the lining between the brain and skull (the meninges), and blood poisoning (septicemia). Symptoms include a stiff neck, fever and rashes. The rash doesn’t fade if pressed with a glass, something I always remember my mum doing whenever my brother or I had a fever. The bug is transmitted by coughing, sneezing or the exchange of saliva, and sometimes through prolonged contact with an infected person. Infection is more likely in the under-5’s and can result in death in up to 10% of cases, even with antibiotic treatment. A vaccine is available but not on the schedule.

According to the ESR website, there have been 42 cases of meningococcal infection in NZ so far this year. There is also an interesting report summarising occurrence of the disease in 2010. Apparently an epidemic of meningococcal disease began in NZ in mid-1991. The vaccine was introduced in 2004 and then removed from the schedule in 2008. It is still available to selected groups. Rates before the epidemic were 1.5 cases per 100,000 rising to 17.4 cases per 100,000 in 2001. The rate for 2010 was 2.4 cases per 100,000. Of the 96 cases in 2010, 6 people died.

So remember, always check any rash by pressing firmly with a glass. If it doesn’t fade, get to the hospital.

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