THE ENEMY: A 3D microscope close up of meningitis bacteria, also known as meningococcus
THE ENEMY: A 3D microscope close up of meningitis bacteria, also known as meningococcus EzumeImages

Cases of 'new' meningococcal strain rare on North Coast

CASES of the latest, most dangerous strain of meningococcal disease have been rare in the local health district say public health officials, but vaccination is vital to prevent it becoming a problem.

The director, Public Health Unit, Northern NSW Local Health District, Paul Corben, said in the past two years there have been two reported cases of Meningococcal W135 in the Northern NSW Local Health District. Both cases involved adults aged over 45.

"Invasive meningococcal disease is a rare condition with fewer than 1.1 cases per 100,000 people in 2016 in Australia, so it is expected that smaller communities would not see many cases," Mr Corben said.

"However, since the disease can have such devastating consequences, the Meningococcal W Response Program has been designed to reduce the risk of invasive meningococcal disease by vaccinating the age group understood to have some of the highest carriage rates, and thereby reduce the risk of transmission to others in the same or different age groups."

The NSW Government has just announced a $9 million program to vaccinate year 11 and 12 students against all four strains of the virus.

An estimated 180,000 students in Years 11 and 12 will be eligible for vaccination in 2017 alone.

Health authorities have warned meningococcal W has emerged as a significant cause of invasive meningococcal disease (IMD) with the number of cases almost tripling in NSW in 2016 compared to 2015.

Evidence from Australia and overseas suggest that IMD caused by meningococcal W is significantly more severe than the other serogroups currently circulating.

The spread of the disease is similar to that observed in some parts of South America and the United Kingdom where meningococcal W rapidly emerged and established local transmission. Without intervention it is anticipated that cases will continue to increase.

National immunisation experts advise that targeting older adolescents will protect them directly, and will also likely reduce long term impact on the broader community, as this age group is most likely to transmit the bacteria to others in the community, including young children.

A NSW Health fact sheet said this vaccine is safe and effective - very similar to the meningococcal C vaccine which has been used routinely in 12 month old infants since 2003. As with any vaccine, local swelling and pain will occur in a small percentage of recipients.

The US and UK have routinely used this vaccine in large numbers of adolescents since 2005 with no safety signals of concern.

Meningococcal disease can affect any age group. Although the disease is more common in adolescents and young infants it is important to remember that people of any age can be infected.

Studies have shown that the effectiveness of the meningococcal ACWY vaccines is between 80-85% in adolescents.

Meningococcal ACWY vaccination programs have been implemented in adolescents in the UK since 2015, and in the US since 2005.

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