Meningococcal - Know the signs

10 August 2023

If you’ve had children or have recently been vaccinated, you’ve likely heard of meningococcal disease.

But what are the signs of the disease and how does SA Pathology help to assist diagnosis?

What is Meningococcal?

Meningococcal disease is caused by the bacteria Neisseria meningitidis. There are 13 types of the disease, but most cases in Australia are derived from variants B and W.

The bacteria invade the throat and nose, before being spread by coughing, sneezing, talking and other forms of close contact such as kissing.

10-20% of the population are carriers.


The disease can cause:

  • Meningitis
  • Septicaemia
  • Joint infection
  • Eye infection
  • Pneumonia
  • Rash.

Unfortunately, in some circumstances patients will not survive.

Who can catch it?

Anyone can catch the disease, but children under 5, and young adults aged 15-24 are most susceptible. It’s also more common in winter and spring.

The best way to protect yourself and your family against the disease is vaccination.


In older children and adults, the symptoms are:

  • Headache
  • Fever
  • Vomiting
  • Stiff neck
  • Drowsiness or confusion
  • Discomfort when looking at light
  • Tiny red or purple spots on the skin which get bigger (they can look like bruising)
  • Collapse
  • Joint pain.

For young children and Infants, look out for these symptoms:

  • Fever
  • Refusing to feed
  • Fretting
  • Hard to wake
  • High-pitched moaning or cry
  • Tiny red or purple spots on the skin which get bigger (they can look like bruising)
  • Pale or blotchy skin
  • Abnormal skin colour
  • Leg pain
  • Cold hands and feet.

How do I get tested?

You will need to have a sample taken from blood or cerebrospinal fluid (CSF).

This sample is then sent to SA Pathology for testing, the sample type will determine the next steps.

PCR (Polymerase Chain Reaction)

A PCR, as we all know from COVID, is used when circumstances require a rapid result which is highly sensitive and specific. In May 2023, SA Pathology received 554 blood samples and 140 CSF samples for meningitis screening by PCR.

To run a PCR, a small amount of protein in your sample is copied multiple times to make it easier to see. This is done by adding polymerase enzyme to the sample together with specific primers and a probe with a fluorescent label designed to bind to the target pathogen, in this case meningococcus bacteria.

The copying process is repeated multiple times, and if the pathogen is present it’s indicated by an increase in fluorescence on the thermocycler which runs the reaction.

Bacterial Swab

Bacterial growths are particularly useful for identifying the variant of an organism. With Meningococcal growths, the Communicable Disease Control Branch can use this information to track outbreaks.

Meningococcal bacteria cultures can take 18-36 hours to grow, or if the specimen is of low quality, it may not grow at all.

This method may not be suitable if the patient has been given antibiotics before having their sample taken.

In this instance, a PCR test is more sensitive and usually quicker.

The state has had 18 cases of invasive meningococcal disease in 2023 compared to 8 cases at the same time last year (at the time of publication).

For detailed information about pathology tests and specific conditions visit

Time for your next blood test? Find a collection centre closest to you.

To book a specialised test call us on 8222 3000.

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