Chapter reviewed and updated in September 2021. A description of changes can be found at Updates to the Communicable Disease Control Manual.
New Zealand epidemiology
There are still a number of cases of invasive meningococcal disease in New Zealand each year and sometimes community outbreaks. Overall, rates are higher in New Zealand than in countries with national immunisation programmes, and Māori and Pacific communities are disproportionately affected. As with the epidemiology in other temperate climates, there tends to be a seasonal pattern, with more cases seen in winter and spring.
Despite rates dropping significantly between 2003 and 2014 following the immunisation response to the meningococcal B epidemic, rates started to gradually increase from 2015. This increase was initially driven by group B strains, with group W also becoming a main driver from 2017. During the COVID-19 pandemic rates have dropped to their lowest values since the eighties, however, this drop is unlikely to be maintained.
More detailed epidemiological information is available on the Institute of Environmental Science and Research (ESR) surveillance website.
Meningococcal disease is a serious invasive disease with an acute onset. It may start as a mild flu-like illness but rapidly progress to fulminant septicaemia and death. Cases typically experience acute fever, malaise, nausea, myalgia, arthralgia and prostration. A rash occurs in about two-thirds of cases – this may range from ill -defined and macular, to petechial or purpuric. More severe infection leads to shock, disseminated intra-vascular coagulation (DIC), acrocyanosis and multi-organ failure.
Approximately 75 percent of cases with septicaemia have meningitis (typically causing headache, photophobia and neck stiffness). Infants present with less specific features.
Other locations of invasive disease with Neisseria meningitidis are possible though rare, such as orbital cellulitis, septic arthritis, and pericarditis.
Nasopharyngeal carriage of meningococci is relatively common, in roughly 15 percent of the population, and is generally more prevalent in young adults, people who are living in conditions of severe overcrowding (Baker et al 2000), smokers and military recruits.
The events that cause meningococcal disease are poorly understood but include a combination of organism, host and environmental factors (Stephens 1999).
Laboratory tests for diagnosis
Laboratory definitive evidence for a confirmed case requires at least one of the following:
- isolation of Neisseria meningitidis bacteria or detection of Neisseria meningitidis nucleic acid from blood, cerebrospinal fluid (CSF) or other normally sterile site (for example, pericardial or synovial fluid)
- detection of gram-negative intracellular diplococci in blood or CSF or skin petechiae
- detection of meningococcal antigen (latex agglutination test) in CSF.
- Under investigation: A case that has been notified, but information is not yet available to classify it as probable or confirmed.
- Probable: A clinically compatible illness.
- Confirmed: A clinically compatible illness that is laboratory confirmed.
- Not a case: A case that has been investigated and subsequently found not to meet the case definition.
Although not meeting the definition of a confirmed case, meningococcal infection of the conjunctiva is considered an indication for public health action because of the high immediate risk of invasive disease (refer Health Protection Agency 2011). Other sites may also require public health follow-up on a case-by-case basis, as determined by the local medical officer of health.
Spread of infection
2–10 days, commonly 3–4 days.
Mode of transmission
Transmission is from person to person through droplets or secretions from the upper respiratory tract, from a carrier or case.
Period of communicability
The case is no longer considered infectious after completion of 24 hours of appropriate antibiotic therapy with rifampicin, cefotaxime/ceftriaxone or ciprofloxacin.
For the purpose of contact tracing, the time period used to define close contacts is from 7 days prior to case’s illness onset to the time the case has completed 24 hours of the appropriate antibiotic treatment.
Attending medical practitioners or laboratories must immediately notify the local medical officer of health of suspected cases. Notification should not await confirmation.
Management of case
Obtain a history of vaccination and possible contacts.
Obtain a history of any antibiotic treatment, to help clarify if there may be partially treated disease.
Ensure laboratory confirmation has been attempted, including strain identification (group and subtype).
Droplet precautions until 24 hours after the start of cefotaxime/ceftriaxone, rifampicin or ciprofloxacin. Close contacts do not require isolation even if they are taking prophylaxis.
Parenteral antibiotics should be administered to all cases as soon as meningococcal disease is suspected before admission to hospital or in hospital if delays and assessment in hospital are likely to be more than 30 minutes.
Antibiotics given prior to transfer should be clearly noted on information accompanying the patient to hospital.
Eradication of carriage
It is important that the case receives an antibiotic that will eliminate throat carriage before discharge from hospital, usually rifampicin, ciprofloxacin or ceftriaxone. Unless one of these has been used in the course of treatment, it should be prescribed for the index case before discharge.
There are currently no specific recommendations for vaccinating cases with meningococcal vaccine, other than the general immunisation recommendations – see ‘Health education’ below and the Immunisation Handbook (Ministry of Health 2017).
The following vaccines are now available and funded for a person who has previously had meningococcal disease:
- Quadrivalent meningococcal conjugate MenACWY-D: Menactra (Sanofi) (from 9 months of age; conjugate Men C vaccine for <9 months)
- Meningococcal group B four-component recombinant 4CMenB: Bexsero (GSK)
People who have previously had any group (including group A, B, C, W or Y) meningococcal disease may be offered both meningococcal vaccines as appropriate for their age. For more details, please refer to the Immunisation Handbook.
|Antibiotic||Children <30kg||Children >30kg and Adults (max dose)|
(first line treatment)
50 mg/kg when given by GP/primary care
100 mg/kg IV (or IM) up to 2g when given in ED
|2 g IV (or IM)|
|50 mg/kg IV (or IM)||2.4 g IV (or IM)|
Advise the case and their caregivers of the nature of the infection and its mode of transmission.
Management of contacts
Anyone who has had unprotected contact with upper respiratory tract or respiratory droplets from the case during the 7 days before onset of illness to 24 hours after onset of effective treatment.
Public health follow-up is most important for household contacts and contacts that have had similarly close exposure. Examples of such contacts are:
- those sleeping at least one night in the same household, dormitory, military barrack, student hostel bunkroom (not residents of nursing or residential homes who sleep in separate rooms) as the case or who have been in a seat adjacent to the case in a plane, bus or train for more than 8 hours
- health care workers who have had intensive unprotected contact (not wearing a mask) with a case during intubation, resuscitation or close examination of the oropharynx
- exchange of upper respiratory tract secretions, including intimate kissing
- other contacts as determined by the medical officer of health on a case-by-case basis, such as children and staff attending an early childhood service
Note: Unless one of these criteria is met, low-level salivary contact such as kissing on the cheek or mouth or sharing food or drink does not require public health follow-up or treatment (given evidence that it does not increase risk of transmission).
If the case has been treated with an effective antibiotic for at least 24 hours before death, any contact risk is low. If the case has not been treated, then occupational contacts should follow routine infection control practices with additional droplet and contact precautions.
Kissing the body is not considered a risk. Body bags are not necessary, and transport to other countries for burial or cremation does not pose a risk. There is no restriction on embalming.
Laboratory workers who handle high concentrations or large quantities of organisms or are routinely exposed to isolates should be protected with the quadrivalent vaccine.
Nil. Routine throat or nasopharyngeal culture of contacts is not recommended because asymptomatic carriage is common.
Antibiotic prophylaxis should be given as soon as possible (ideally within 24 hours) after the diagnosis of the index case. After 24 hours, chemoprophylaxis (and vaccine if appropriate) should still be considered for close contacts; however, there is little value in offering this more than 14 days after the diagnosis of illness (there is a low risk of further cases after this period, see CDC 2005b).
The purpose of antibiotic prophylaxis is to eradicate nasopharyngeal colonisation by meningococci and thus prevent transmission to other susceptible people. Prophylaxis will not treat illness that the person may be incubating, so it is essential that the contacts be advised to seek urgent medical attention if they become unwell.
- Children under 1 month old: Rifampicin 5 mg/kg twice daily for 2 days.
- Children over 1 month old, and adults: Rifampicin 10 mg/kg (maximum 600 mg) twice daily for 2 days.
- Avoid rifampicin if pregnant or breastfeeding.
- 125 mg for children under 12 years of age, and 250 mg for older children and adults, intramuscularly as a single dose. This is the preferred prophylaxis for women who are pregnant or breastfeeding. Do not use in infants under 4 weeks of age.
- 500 mg or 750 mg orally as a single dose for children over 12 years of age and adults, except pregnant and lactating women. This is the preferred prophylaxis for women on the oral contraceptive pill. Also preferable for prophylaxis of large groups.
Ciprofloxacin has been recommended in all age groups in international guidelines (Public Health England 2018, Communicable Diseases Network Australia, 2017, European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control, 2010).
Consult Medsafe data sheets for appropriate use and dosages of ciporofloxacin in children. Treatment in children should only be initiated after careful benefit/risk evaluation and prescribing health practitioners should ensure they are familiar with their responsibilities when prescribing a medicine for ‘off-label’ use.
Resistance to ciprofloxacin is rare but has been described. A meningococcal C outbreak in 2018 in Fiji has shown to be resistant to ciprofloxacin. If such a strain is suspected, ciprofloxacin should not be used for antibiotic prophylaxis.
Other control measures
Management of contacts when there are large groups involved
In instances where large groups of people have been exposed to a case, it is likely that contacts will have returned to a variety of health districts. Any follow-up needs to be coordinated by the appropriate medical officer of health to ensure that districts provide consistent advice and treatment.
- Outbreak: Two or more cases of disease associated in time, place or person.
- Sporadic case: A single case in the absence of a previous known contact with another case.
- Primary case: A case that occurs in the absence of previous known close contact with another case.
- Co-primary case: A close contact who develops the disease within 24 hours of onset of illness in the primary case.
- Secondary case: A close contact who develops the disease more than 24 hours after onset of illness in the primary case where the microbiological characteristics of the organism are the same.
- Organisation outbreak: Two or more cases of the same strain (group and serotype) occurring within a 4-week period at the same early childhood service, school, sports group, social group, nursing home, university, etc.
- Community outbreak: Three or more confirmed cases of the same strain (group and serotype) within a 3-month period and an age-specific incidence or specific community population incidence of approximately 10 per 100,000, where there is no other obvious link between the cases (this is not an absolute threshold). The numerator is defined by the number of unlinked cases (that is, they are not close contacts of each other and do not share a common affiliation). The denominator is defined as the population at risk that makes best sense in terms of population residence and movement, and therefore transmission of meningococcal bacteria.
The aim of the intervention in such settings is to eradicate carriage of the strain from a population at high risk. The medical officer of health determines necessary action in discussion with the Ministry of Health.
Identification of source
Check for other cases in the community. Do not perform screening cultures because asymptomatic carriage is common.
Clean and disinfect surfaces and materials soiled with respiratory secretions.
Key messages include being aware of signs and symptoms, and the importance of early medical advice and treatment.
Ensure people are aware of the availability of and recommendations for meningococcal vaccines. See the Immunisation Handbook (Ministry of Health 2020) for more details.
Ensure complete case information is entered into EpiSurv.
If a cluster of cases occurs, inform the Ministry of Health Communicable Diseases Team and outbreak liaison staff at ESR, and complete the Outbreak Report Form.
- Baker M, Zhang J, Howden-Chapman P, et al. 2000. Household crowding: a major risk factor for epidemic meningococcal disease in Auckland children. Pediatric Infectious Diseases Journal 19: 983–90.
- CDC. 2005a. Prevention and control of meningococcal disease: recommendations of the Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices (ACIP). Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report 4(RR-7).
- CDC. 2005b. Prevention and control of meningococcal disease: recommendations of the Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices (ACIP) [PDF, 322 KB]. Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report 54(RR-7): 16.
- Communicable Diseases Network Australia (CDNA). 2017. Invasive Meningococcal Disease CDNA National Guidelines for Public Health Units. Canberra: Australian Government.
- Department of Health and Ageing, Australia. 2007. Guidelines for the Early Clinical and Public Health Management of Meningococcal Disease in Australia. Canberra: Australian Government.
- European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control. 2010. Public health management of sporadic cases of invasive meningococcal disease and their contacts. Stockholm: European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control.
- Heyman DL (ed). 2014. Control of Communicable Diseases Manual (20th edition). Washington: American Public Health Association.
- Ministry of Health. 2020. Immunisation Handbook 2020. Wellington: Ministry of Health.
- Public Health Agency of Canada. 2005. Guidelines for the prevention and control of meningococcal disease. Canada Communicable Disease Report 31S1.
- Public Health England. 2018. Guidance for Public Health Management of Meningococcal Disease in the UK. Updated February 2018. London: Public Health England.
- Stephens DS. 1999. Uncloaking the meningococcus: dynamics of carriage and disease. Lancet 353: 941–2.
- WHO. 2011. Meningococcal vaccines: WHO position paper, November 2011. Weekly Epidemiological Record 86(47): 521–540.
- Zalmanovici Trestioreanu A, Fraser A, Gafter-Gvili A, et al. 2011. Antibiotics for preventing meningococcal infections. Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews 8. Art. no. CD004785. DOI: 10.1002/14651858.CD004785.pub4