NSW Health has issued a public health alert for meningococcal disease after two cases were reported in people attending this year’s Splendor in Grass music festival in northern New South Wales.
Meningococcus is a contagious infection that health authorities classify as a medical emergency because it can be fatal within hours. Infection occurs when the meningococcal germ, which is latent in many people, invades the throat and travels into the bloodstream to cause poisoning.
A man in his forties died after contracting the disease at the festival in North Byron Parklands from July 21-24. Another case has been identified by NSW Health but additional details are unknown.
NCA NewsWire spoke to infectious disease expert Dr. Robert Bowie to answer your questions about the fast-acting disease.
Could I have fallen ill in splendor?
According to Dr. Bowie, being close to festival-goers means an increased chance of infection spreading.
“There are a number of examples where people either went to a festival or a football field and we had two, three or four cases,” he said.
“This is not common but is well known and is due to close contact, crowding and people standing next to each other (while) singing, dancing and screaming.”
The University of Sydney professor noticed that singing and shouting (required activities at the festival) release a lot of particles into the air, which nearby people will inhale.
If someone carries the dormant meningococcal germ and releases it while singing, it can easily pass it on to nearby revelers.
Dr. Bowie also warned that kissing is a sure way to transmit infection.
How will I know if I have meningococcus?
NSW Health warns that symptoms can appear suddenly and quickly become very serious.
Dr Bowie said people should be very careful if they think they have been exposed to the disease, and urged festival attendees to closely monitor symptoms.
“People should look for the three or four classic symptoms: headache, fever, rash, and rash are small spots where the color doesn’t go away when you press on them,” he said.
“If they feel unwell, they may notice that their hands and feet feel very cold.”
NSW Health Advice lists other symptoms including severe extremity pain, lethargy, sensitivity to bright lights and a stiff neck.
Dr. Bowie said people have a “golden hour” window of 12 to 36 hours to identify meningococcal symptoms and seek immediate treatment.
“The golden hours are the period when you deteriorate, your blood pressure drops, and you go into shock,” said the former head of clinical research at the National Center for Immunization Research and Surveillance at Westmead Children’s Hospital.
“During that time, if you are treated with fluids and antibiotics, you can save a life.”
Urge anyone who feels unwell to see their doctor or to go to the hospital if they feel very unwell.
What should I do if I think I have been exposed?
The best thing you can do, Dr. Bowie said, is to keep an eye on your colleagues and fellow attendees, and be sure to watch for symptoms.
“If you are in Splendor in the Grass, you need to find your friend and partner,” he said.
“Make sure that feeling dizzy isn’t just a headache, the grogginess isn’t just a hangover, it could actually be an infection.”
Will I die?
As many as one in ten meningococcal cases lead to death in Australia, according to an infectious disease expert.
“Most cases survive disability,” said Dr. Bowie.
NSW Health reports that 40 percent of meningococcal cases result in permanent disability, which can range from limb loss to learning disabilities.
How can I protect myself from meningococcus?
As we’ve heard repeated many times over the past two years, vaccination is key to prevention.
Older readers will remember that there was a meningococcal outbreak in Australia in the early 1990s before vaccinations were introduced to all children in 2003.
The National Immunization Program now provides meningococcal vaccines to infants as young as 12 months, 10-year-old teens, and people with certain medical conditions.
NSW Health reports an increase in 15 meningococcal cases in the state this year after two years of delays due to the closure of international borders.
Dr Bowie said the number of meningococcal cases is below pre-pandemic levels.