• Meningococcal disease is a serious and potentially deadly illness
  • It is spread through the exchange of respiratory secretions
  • It is said to be more common in infants and children

A man from Adelaide has died from meningococcal disease, marking the fifth case in South Australia this year. What is this illness and is it contagious?

The government of South Australia Thursday announced that a 69-year-old man from metropolitan Adelaide died from meningococcal disease in the hospital overnight.

This is already the fifth case of the disease in South Australia in 2021. There were two cases of meningococcal disease at this time in 2020 and a total of five cases in the entire year.

What Is Meningococcal Disease?

Meningococcal disease, also called invasive meningococcal disease or IMD, is a severe infection that's caused by the bacteria Neisseria meningitidis, the San Francisco Department of Health explained. It affects the thin layer of tissue that covers the spinal cord and brain and may also lead to a blood infection.

The rare disease can be deadly if not treated and it may cause death in half of the cases. But even with treatment, it can still lead to death in about 10 to 15% of the people infected. Meanwhile, those who do survive may end up with conditions such as permanent brain damage, chronic nervous system problems or loss of arms and legs.

"In fatal cases, deaths can occur in as little as a few hours," the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) said.

The most common symptoms of meningococcal disease include stiff neck, fever, cold hands and feet, dark purple rash and headache. Nausea, vomiting, confusion and sensitivity to light are also some additional symptoms.

These may be harder to spot in babies. However, parents can instead look for signs of irritability, vomiting, inactivity and a bulge in the soft spot in the infant's skull.

"If you or your child has any of these symptoms, call the doctor right away," the CDC said.

Anyone can have meningococcal disease, but it is said to be more common in infants and children compared to people in other age ranges. 

Is Meningococcal Disease Contagious?

According to the CDC, about one in 10 people have the disease-causing bacteria at the back of their throat and nose without getting sick. They are considered "carriers" of the bacteria, and they may fall ill if the bacteria invade the body.

People can spread the disease to others via respiratory secretions, for instance, by kissing or coughing. It is not spread through casual contact or by simply breathing in the air at a place where someone infected has been in.

"Fortunately, they are not as contagious as germs that cause the common cold or the flu," the CDC said.

Those more at risk are the close contacts of the infected, such as those who live in the same household and those who have had direct contact with the patient's oral secretions.

In the case of the man who died in Adelaide, those who came in close contact with him have already been identified, while one has been "directed to receive clearance antibiotics."

Being given the antibiotics doesn't mean those in close contact have the disease. Rather, it is a preventive measure, CDC said.

hospital-1802680_1920 Representation. Hospital bed. Photo: Pixabay