Are You Vaccinated Against Meningococcal Disease?

By Alana McConnell (she/her)

Leading health experts are calling for secondary schools to ensure students are vaccinated for meningococcal disease in light of the upcoming WHO guidelines. New Zealand has one of the worst rates for this disease globally, higher than Australia, the United Kingdom, and 24 times higher than the United States.


One in ten patients who contract the disease will die, even with medical care. One in five survivors will have permanent disabilities; like brain damage, amputated limbs, and hearing loss (Thompson MJ, et al. Lancet 2006; 367(9508): 397–403 3). Meningococcal disease is an incredibly serious bacterial disease, which can cause meningitis, an infection of the membranes that cover the brain, and septicaemia, otherwise known as blood poisoning.


Though it can affect anyone, it’s most common in children, teenagers, and young adults. It’s been reported that students in their first year of tertiary education living in student accommodation may be at higher risk. The disease is transmitted through close contact with mucus from an infected person, such as coughing, sneezing, kissing, sharing eating or drinking utensils, and toothbrushes. It is difficult to catch as the bacteria doesn’t live outside the body for very long.


Associate Professor Helen Petousis-Harris says the vaccination is necessary to protect students heading to university whose health may not be adequately monitored in their new environment.


Currently, students who are at private boarding schools, university halls, and those in military accommodation, or prisons, can be immunised against some strains for free. However, anyone leaving school to head to the workforce, learn a trade, or support family is not protected.


The Meningitis Foundation is calling on the Government to widen access to vaccines for all common forms of the disease.


Paul Chapman lost his daughter Miwa to meningitis in 2020 when she was flatting at Canterbury University. He wants to ensure as many young people get the vaccine, which is free for people aged 13 to 25 in close-living situations.


“I didn't get Miwa vaccinated because I didn't know there was one, and I don't think many people would know that these vaccinations are free for young people living in close-living situations,” Chapman said.


The new WHO strategy aims to eliminate meningitis and reduce cases and deaths that are vaccine preventable globally by 2030. The rate of meningococcal disease is around three times higher in Pacific people and two-fold higher in Māori.


Currently in New Zealand, there are more vaccines funded on the NZ National Immunisation Schedule to help protect against the disease. These vaccines are prescription medicine, so they are recommended but not funded, apart from the specific age bracket in close living situations