Meningitis warning for travellers, backpackers, students
Have the meningococcal meningitis vaccine – that’s the advice to Australian travellers heading to northern Africa in coming weeks following large-scale epidemics of the deadly disease across continent’s ‘meningitis belt’.
One of the most aggressive of all bacterial infections, the disease has struck in numerous ‘belt’ countries this year, including major recent outbreaks in Burkina Faso (4800 infected, 500 dead), Chad (2800, 130), Benin (700, 60), and Ghana (102, 16).
New meningococcal outbreaks can be expected to continue across sub-Saharan Africa until June, when the dry season – the region’s peak transmission period for the disease – ends.
Invasive meningococcal disease is responsible for an estimated 170,000 deaths worldwide each year. Even with effective treatment, it kills an average of around 10% of those infected and causes permanent injury to another 20%.
Rapid diagnosis, treatment difficult for travellers
Immunisation against meningococcal disease is important for Australians travelling to endemic regions such as Africa, according to prominent Australian infectious diseases specialist, Professor Robert Booy, an expert on the disease.
Rapidly diagnosing and effectively treating the disease could be extremely difficult throughout Africa, but particularly in the poorer sub-Saharan countries.
“Meningococcal disease is one of the fastest-acting and deadliest of infections,” Professor Booy said.
“It’s one of the very few diseases that can kill within 24 hours. In fact, a person – particularly a child – can start the day well and end the day dead.
Mild symptoms can turn fatal
“The initial symptoms are mild and innocuous – much like the flu.
“But, unlike flu, it can progress rapidly from a mild fever and headache, to life-threatening symptoms within 24 hours.
“That does not give you much time if you are in a foreign country far from effective medical help.”
Outbreaks have also occurred during the Hajj and proof of vaccination against meningococcal disease is a mandatory requirement for entry into Saudi Arabia for all Muslims making the annual pilgrimage to Mecca.
Students, some backpackers at higher risk
Australian doctors now routinely recommend meningococcal vaccination to students looking to study, live or work overseas, particularly young adults.
In fact, vaccination against the disease is part of the US National Immunisation Schedule for young adultsand a mandatory requirement for living or studying on campus at an increasing number of universities and colleges.
“Students travelling overseas to study who will be living on campus or in shared accommodation in a developed country should be vaccinated with one of the two conjugated quadrivalent vaccines, Menactra or Menveo.
New vaccines offer superior protection
“These newer vaccines are recommended over the earlier polysaccharide quadrivalent vaccines, Menomune and Mencevax, because the conjugated vaccines reduce carriage rates of the organism and offer superior protection from invasive disease.
“Young people are also likely to continue travelling overseas to both developed and developing countries, exposing them to strains of meningococcal not found at home. This is especially so for backpackers likely to spend extended periods in crowded places like buses and trains, or staying in hostels.
“The advantage in using Menactra is that infants as young as two who are travelling with their parents can be protected against the A, Y, and W-135 strains, while also boosting their existing immunity against the C strain.”