Meningococcal disease in teens

Meningococcal disease in teens


Meningococcal disease can turn up in teens. But why should I even care?

Meningococcal disease can develop when certain bacteria commonly found in the nose and throat gatecrashes the body, resulting in serious illness. It spreads through very close contact between people (e.g. intimate kissing or living in the same household).

Most people will recover from meningococcal disease if it’s detected early. The disease requires immediate hospital admission and usually is treated with antibiotics given intravenously. Despite early diagnosis and treatment, around 15% of people with meningococcal disease develop permanent disabilities, including loss of arms, legs, fingers and/or toes, deafness, blindness, scars and kidney or liver failure. And here’s where it gets really serious - up to 1 in 10 people with meningococcal disease die as a result of the infection. Sometimes antibiotics are given to close contacts of people with meningococcal disease to prevent them from also being infected.

The good news is, meningococcal disease can be prevented with vaccination. There are different vaccines available to protect against the most common types of meningococcal disease (A, B, C, W, and Y). Teenagers aged 14-16 can get the free combination vaccine for meningococcal disease type A, C, W and Y at school. This vaccine covers four of the five strains of meningococcal disease, however, the vaccine does not protect against meningococcal disease caused by type B.

What are the symptoms?

  • Symptoms get worse very quickly (within hours) and are often misdiagnosed since early symptoms often resemble those of other infections like the flu.
  • There are a range of symptoms which vary according to severity and age. Babies and young children can experience different symptoms to older children and adults.
  • Symptoms requiring urgent medical attention include rash of red or purple pinprick spots or larger bruise-like areas, fever, headache, neck stiffness, discomfort when looking at bright light, nausea or vomiting, a sudden rash of red or purple pinprick spots or larger bruise-like areas, diarrhoea, and feeling very sick.
  • Other symptoms include loss of appetite, irritability or fretfulness, confusion, drowsiness, extreme tiredness, aching or sore muscles, painful or swollen joints, difficulty walking, and maybe collapsing, grunting or moaning, difficulty talking, having fits.
  • Because meningococcal disease can progress very rapidly, it is important that anyone with symptoms seek medical attention urgently.
It can spread from just a make-out sesh
It can spread from just a make-out sesh

Meningococcal disease in teens

Although meningococcal disease can affect people of all ages, teens aged 15-19 years are particularly at risk of being infected and spreading it to others. In fact, roughly 20% of 19-year olds are carrying the meningococcal bacteria responsible for the disease in the back of their throat compared to people in younger or older age groups, who are carrying as little as 5%. The disease spreads through very close contact between people (e.g. intimate kissing and mingling at music festivals) - that long make-out sesh could be giving you much more than you think!

With this kind of close contact, it’s no surprise that there’s a high rate of transmission of meningococcal disease in teenagers compared to other age groups. In countries, including Australia, this disease rate has been found to be up to 3 times higher in teenagers.

Fortunately, vaccines are available to help protect you from developing this life-threatening infection. If you are in year 10 and are aged 14-16 years, the meningococcal ACWY vaccine is available for free through your school’s vaccination program.

Alternatively, if you are 15-19 years of age and have not received the vaccine at school, you can receive it as part of an ongoing catch-up program through GPs and other vaccination providers.


Social behaviours in adolescents and young adults are believed to be largely responsible for higher risk of meningococcal disease. They can unknowingly carry and transmit the bacteria through the exchange of respiratory secretions during close contact, such as kissing or coughing on someone. Other social behaviours that can increase the risk of transmission include living in dormitory or military barrack, travelling more, attending music festivals, and smoking.

I can get free vaccination at school. Yeet!
I can get free vaccination at school. Yeet!

Preparing for the school-based meningococcal vaccination program

So, you’re in year 10, are aged 14-16 years and you can therefore receive a free meningococcal ACWY vaccination through school-based vaccination programs. After speaking with your parent or guardian, you’ve decided to get vaccinated to protect you against meningococcal disease. You will receive a consent form from your school, which will need to be signed by your parent or guardian, then returned to the school before the vaccination can be given. Signed consent form is is, so what's next? You may be feeling a little nervous as to what to expect on the day.

But YOU GOT THIS! And these top 3 tips might be helpful:

  1. Understand the facts – The needle can hurt for a moment, but it provides protection against meningococcal disease. A small sacrifice!
  2. Eat beforehand – Eating a good breakfast and snacking on the day can help you avoid feeling unnecessarily dizzy or dehydrated.
  3. Speak up if you’re feeling anxious – It’s okay to feel uneasy, especially while you are waiting for your turn. Reach out to the nurse or teacher if you would like to ask any questions or for reassurance that it will be okay. Asking if you can go first or early on can help if the wait is making you more nervous. When it’s time for the injection, thinking about something else can help distract you from what is happening – you could try wiggling your toes or clenching your fist as the needle goes in!


With any vaccine, there is a very small risk of a serious allergic reaction (anaphylaxis). This waiting time is a precaution in case further treatment is required following the vaccination.

Some common side effects include pain/swelling/redness at the injection site, fever, chills, headaches, rash, nausea, and loss of appetite. However, these usually resolve within 48-72 hours. If you experience any side effects or have any concerns following the vaccination, please see your doctor for advice. Serious side effects from the vaccine are extremely rare.

If you are 15-19 years of age, you can receive the meningococcal ACWY vaccine through your GP or other immunisation provider through an ongoing catch-up program.

School leavers should see their GP to be included in the meningococcal vaccination program.

Vaccination is very effective in providing protection against meningococcal disease – even if you have had meningococcal disease before. This is because immunity does not necessarily last forever.

There are different types of vaccines for the different strains of meningococcal disease. The vaccination given as part of the school program helps protect against the A, C, W and Y strains. It does not protect against the B strain.

You should speak with your healthcare professional about which vaccinations are appropriate for you.

Are you protected?
Meningococcal disease is serious, but you can protect yourself. For more information on meningococcal disease and its prevention, speak with your doctor.
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