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The meningococcal vaccine: What you need to know

Dr Hamish Black

Here's what you need to know about the meningococcal vaccine.

child getting vaccinated
child getting vaccinated

There are 13 strains of meningococcal disease and vaccination offers protection against five strains. Here's what you need to know about the meningococcal vaccine.

You might have heard about meningococcal disease in the news from time to time, and wondered what it was. Here, we explain more about the condition and the vaccine that can help reduce your chances of developing it. 

What is meningococcal? 

Meningococcal disease is a rare, but very serious infection that can cause meningitis and severe scarring, loss of limbs, brain damage or even death. 

It’s usually spread through secretions from the back of the nose and throat. For example, through ‘deep’ kissing, or by living in the same household with someone who carries the bacteria.  

Fortunately, it’s not easily spread by sharing drinks, food or cigarettes.  

Vaccination is effective, says nib Group Medical Advisor Dr Hamish Black.

It will help prevent you getting the disease and becoming very sick if you are exposed to it.

Who needs the vaccine? 

Meningococcal disease can affect anyone and at any age. While everyone should consider vaccination, it’s especially recommended for these groups:

  • infants, children, adolescents and young adults 

  • Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people 

  • those with certain medical conditions  

  • laboratory workers who frequently handle neisseria meningitidis (bacteria that cause meningococcal disease) 

  • travellers 

  • young adults who live in close quarters or who smoke. 

Types of vaccine  

Of the 13 known strains of meningococcal, A, B, C, W and Y most commonly cause the disease. While no single vaccine protects against all strains, in Australia there are vaccines to help protect against these five strains. 

Meningococcal B vaccines are free for:

  • Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children aged two months, four months, six months (for those with certain medical conditions) and 12 months. 

Meningococcal A, C, W and Y are free for: 

  • all children aged 12 months 

  • adolescents aged 14-16 years (primarily delivered through school-based vaccination programs)  

  • anyone (including refugees and humanitarian entrants) under 20 years of age as part of a catch-up program. 

Both these vaccines are also free for anyone who does not have a spleen, or whose spleen does not function as well as it should, and those who have a specific blood disorder and are being treated with the medication eculizumab. 

If you are not eligible for the free vaccine but want to reduce your risk of being infected, you can talk to your GP about purchasing the vaccine on prescription

When shouldn’t you get a vaccine? 

While meningococcal vaccines are fine for most people, you should not have it or speak to your GP if you’ve had anaphylaxis after a previous dose of the vaccine. It’s also not recommended for pregnant or breastfeeding women, or anyone with a latex allergy.  

Do you need a booster?  

Both vaccines usually require a single dose but this may depend on your age and medical history.  

Are there any side effects? 

The vaccines may produce mild side effects, Hamish says. These include pain, redness and swelling where the needle went in. In some cases, fever may occur (especially for the meningococcal B vaccine), or feelings of being unsettled, tired, low appetite or headaches.  

“There is also a very low risk of severe allergy to the vaccines so it is important to wait 15 minutes after being vaccinated before leaving the surgery,” he says. 

Please note: The tips throughout this article serve as broad information and should not replace any advice you have been given by your medical practitioner.  

Dr Hamish Black

Dr Hamish Black

Dr Hamish Black

Dr Hamish Black has been a medical practitioner for more than 25 years. In addition to his role as nib group medical advisor, he still spends two days a week practising as a GP. He has spent many years working in emergency departments and in rural Australia, including a stint with the Royal Flying Doctor Service. Hamish also loves karaoke and dancing (though not that well at either, he says!), with Play that Funky Music by Wild Cherry being his karaoke favourite.