Parents should keep a close watch on their child's health.
Parents should keep a close watch on their child's health. HalfPoint

Parents urged to trust instincts in meningoccocal outbreak

FEVER, irritability, spots and stiffness in a child could mean a simple illness or something far more serious.

The recent outbreak of meningoccocal disease in Queensland has health authorities urging parents to "trust their instincts" when it comes to the infection, which has a fatality rate of between 5-10%.

Professor Robert Booy, head of the Clinical Research team at the National Centre for Immunisation Research and Surveillance (NCIRS), said while it was vitally important that children were vaccinated against diseases, parents really needed to believe and act on their intuition.

"Parents, pay attention to your child if they are behaving unusually, if they have a fever then get an opinion from the local GP," he said.

"But trust your instructs, parents know when they look odd (so) it's particularity important to have them checked."

The infectious disease expert, based at the University of Sydney, said there were three issues parents should check with a sick child.

"There are some key things to look out for such as a high fever, irritability and a swelling on the soft spot of an infant's head," he said.

"If the child looking unwell trust your instincts that it's not the usual fever and look for a rash with pinprick little dots."

Prof Booy said while there had been a rash of meningoccoal cases, thankfully the disease was still considered rare, affecting around one in 100,000.

"In 2016 we have over 230 cases compared to about 180 in 2015, so the numbers are going up but it's still an area-based disease," he said.

Prof Booy added that the disease nationally was on the rise, thanks to the C-strain mutating to form a more toxic W-strain.

According to Meningoccocal Australia, as of November 13, 2016, in NSW, there were 63 cases in the year to date 2016, up from 43 in 2015 and 35 in 2014 and 39 cases have been from strains other than B or C.

On average, the number of incidents of the disease rises to 26 cases per month from July through to September, which is almost double the number of cases from January to March.

The symptoms of the W-strain can be similar to a cold or the flu, but those affected also get a rash that forms in purple blotches.

But Prof Booy said the while symptoms for the W-strain are similar to the B and C strains, it can also present some gastro-like symptoms.

He reassured any parents concerned about vaccination.

"Our use of vaccines have never been safer, they are generally very well tolerated and highly effective," he said.

The vaccine for only one of the two most common strains, serogroup C, is available for free for one-year-old children under Australia's National Immunisation Program.

However, the meningoccocal B vaccine, Bexsero, isn't funded by the scheme and has been out of stock nationally since October.

As this vaccination can cost to $400-$500, price could be a factor with parents choosing not to immunise their child, Prof Booy said.

"The W-strain vaccination can cost just $40 while the B-strain can coast between $400-$500 and the C-strain disease is almost gone since we have had a (free) vaccination for it ... in the early 2000s there 6-7000 cases per year."

Prof Booy said that meningoccoal, like many other other viruses, comes and goes.

"It waxes and wanes and the bug mutates and changes," he said.

"We have control of (the) C-strain extremely well, but the same bug has changed its coat and taken off the sugar coating to be the W-strain but inside its the same nasty bug.

Prof Booy explained these bugs carry a indo-toxin where the whole outer surface of the germ is a sugar-related covering.

"Inside the actual germ, the bug has simply swapped genetically with the ability to make the C to W sugar-coating and this is why we are paying attention," he said.

"The W-vaccine is still only used in outbreak situations (but) it is being considered in the longer term and a routine vaccination for children."