Australians have been urged to be on the lookout for symptoms of a deadly disease after a spike in cases, as a state government promises vaccines to help prevent more deaths.
NSW Health issued a warning on Friday after 25 cases of meningococcal disease — mostly the B strain of the infection, which presents similarly but is caused by a different group of bacteria — were reported this year. It comes close to surpassing the 29 cases that were reported across the whole of 2022, three of which were deadly.
The disease, which causes a fever, headaches and sometimes a rash, is a rare but serious infection that can be fatal, with babies, toddlers, teenagers and young adults most at risk.
“While vaccination of these age groups has reduced the number of infections each year, the vaccines do not protect against all strains of meningococcal bacteria and people of all ages can be infected,” NSW Health said.
“All people should be aware of symptoms so they can act fast.”
In December, 23-year-old Queenslander Bella Fidler tragically died less than 24 hours after she was admitted to hospital with the disease.
Bella tested positive for meningococcal B after returning from a girls’ trip in Indonesia to her celebrate the end of her law degree. She was rushed to a Gold Coast hospital, where she could not be saved.
On Friday, the Queensland government answered calls from Bella’s parents, Blair and Joe, and announced a vaccine to prevent the disease will be made available for free to children under the age of two and teenagers aged 15 to 19, under routine childhood and school immunisation programs.
“Jodie and Blair Fidler didn’t know their beautiful daughter Bella wasn’t protected from meningococcal B through the existing school vaccination program, which only covers the A, C, W and Y strains,” said Queensland health minister Shannon Fentiman, who explained she “had” to act “after hearing the stories of heartbroken Queensland families”.
“It is just amazing that Bella’s family has been able to channel their grief into advocacy for something that will undoubtedly save Queensland lives.”
The vaccine, which is currently optional in Queensland and costs $100, will be made available for free from 2024.
Queensland — which has recorded 20 cases of meningococcal B so far this year, following 22 cases in 2022 — joins SA as the only Aussie states that provide the vaccine for free.
“We know the meningococcal B strain can be lethal and, if a young person is lucky enough to survive the disease, it’s likely they will develop permanent and sometimes devastating complications,” said Ms Fentiman.
Bella’s mum, Jodie Fidler, said she hoped Queensland’s decision to provide the vaccines for free will be her late daughter’s legacy.
“I was so happy to hear the news because it means Queenslanders could be spared the same devastation that we’ve experienced due to meningococcal B,” Jodie said.
“We’ve really campaigned hard on this issue in memory of our beautiful daughter, Bella.”
Symptoms of meningococcal include:
- Sudden fever
- Neck stiffness
- Joint or limb pain
- Sensitivity to bright light
- Nausea and vomiting
- High-pitched crying in babies
- A rash of red-purple spots or bruise, which may appear after other symptoms or late in the disease progression