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Meningococcal: What is the W strain and can you get vaccinated?

ABC News logo ABC News 23/08/2017 Carol Rääbus
A doctor injects a vaccine. © AAP Image/Lukas Coch A doctor injects a vaccine.

Meningococcal disease often makes headlines when cases spike or it claims a life.

On Saturday, Lloyd Dunham died while on holiday in Tasmania after contracting the W strain of the disease.

So what is the difference between the A, B, C, W and Y strains caused by Neisseria meningitidis bacteria and who is most at risk?

Up until the late 1990s the C strain was the most common to cause infections in Australia.

In 2003 a vaccine against C strain was added to the National Immunisation Program and it has since become very rare.

Meningococcal W has significantly increased in Australia in recent years.

It tends to cause more severe reactions and if contracted, there is a higher chance of the person dying from it than from other strains.

In 2016 the rates of meningococcal W tripled in Tasmania compared to past years, and the state has the highest rate of W strain infection in Australia.

While infections are still fairly rare, the bacteria that causes meningococcal is quite common, according to Eliza Ault-Connell, director of Meningococcal Australia.

"One in 10 people carry the bacteria at any one time in the back of their nose," she told Leon Compton on ABC Radio Hobart.

"But it's only if it contacts someone with lower immunity — perhaps they're rundown — that they may contract the disease."

How does it spread?

Meningococcal is spread through saliva droplets, so it can be transmitted through kissing, sneezing and coughing, but it is not as infectious as influenzas strains, with prolonged exposure needed to transmit the disease.

While not sharing drinks or kissing can reduce your risk of infection, the only real protection is through vaccination.

"We need to remember that this disease doesn't just affect babies and children and teenagers, it can affect anyone at any time," Ms Ault-Connell said.

"We've been very effective since 2003 with the introduction of the meningococcal C vaccine.

"That vaccine has been so incredibly effective, it's not just protected our babies and children, it's actually formed a herd community protection."

While the meningococcal C vaccine is offered free for children aged 12 months, vaccines for the other strains are not part of the National Immunisation Program.

In Tasmania, the Government has implemented a free vaccine program for teenagers aged 15 to 19 for the quadrivalent meningococcal vaccine which covers the A, C, W and Y strains.

A vaccine against meningococcal B is only available on private prescription and requires a number of doses, which depending on where the vaccine is given, can cost hundreds of dollars.

Ms Ault-Connell said Meningococcal Australia would like to see more meningococcal vaccines made a part of the National Immunisation Program so the cost did not prevent families getting immunised.

"We would like to see a national approach with the meningococcal vaccine so that everyone who choses to vaccinate and protect themselves and their families can."

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