Free vaccine for teenagers amidst rise of deadly meningococcal disease

Meningococcal can kill in 24 hours

Meningococcal disease starts out with flu-like symptoms but can cause death or permanent disability if people don't "act quickly".

Teenagers across Australia will be given a free meningococcal vaccine to protect them against four strains of the potentially deadly disease, the Morrison government announced on Tuesday.

More than one million 14 to 19 year-olds will receive the ACWY meningococcal vaccine (Nimenrix) over the next four years when the quadrivalent vaccine is added to the National Immunisation Schedule from April 2019.

Meningococcal has been on the rise in Australia. In 2017 there were 382 cases reported nationally compared to 252 in 2016 and 182 in 2015.

Mischelle Rhodes is one of the 10 people who have died of Meningococcal W strain across the nation this year.
Mischelle Rhodes is one of the 10 people who have died of Meningococcal W strain across the nation this year.  Photo: Facebook

The number of deaths rose from 11 in 2016 to 28 in 2017, of which 21 were due to the A,C,W or Y strain.

Ten people have died from meningococcal so far this year including 19-year-old university student Mischelle Rhodes.

Under the $52 million scheme, all 14 to16 year-olds will receive the vaccine. A catch-up program will cover 15 to 19-year-olds via their GPs.

The PBS-funded vaccine will replace the patchwork of state-funded meningococcal vaccine programs.

Meningococcal disease is a very uncommon but serious condition that occurs when the meningococcal bacteria that grow in the back of the nose and throat invades the blood and membranes around the spinal cord and brain.

Symptoms include sudden onset of fever, headache, neck stiffness, joint pain, a rash of red-purple spots or bruises, dislike of bright lights, nausea and vomiting.


The disease can be fatal if not diagnosed within 24 hours.

The bacteria do not survive for long outside the human body and are spread via close person-to-person contact, such as kissing, sneezing and coughing.

Teenagers are particularly at risk of contracting the strain and passing it onto others because of their physical interaction with their peers.

The quadrivalent vaccine does not protect against meningococcal B.

Health Minister Greg Hunt has encouraged B vaccine manufacturer GSK to apply for approval from the Pharmaceutical Benefits Advisory Committee next year.

South Australia is the only state to offer the free B strain vaccine to students and young people from 2019.

“I am absolutely committed to strengthening Australia’s world-class national vaccination program and urge all Australian parents to have their teenagers vaccinated,” Mr Hunt said.

Professor Johnathan Iredell, director of infectious diseases at the Westmead Institute for Medical Research said the decision to add the quadrivalent vaccine to the NIP was a "very sensible response".

"We all expect this will lead to significant improvements in the protection of young adults in Australia from meningococcal," Professor Iredell said.

He said the announcement was also recognition that meningococcal W appeared to be more severe than the other subtypes and welcomed moves to add the B vaccine to the national immunisation schedule.

A free ACWY vaccine is also available for 12-month-olds as of July 1, 2018.