Infectious disease that kills 1 in 10 'within 24 hours' found in UK as Foreign Office issues urgent warning

Composite image of a man in a hazmat suit and busy commuters

Invasive meningococcal disease that can kill one in 10 has been detected in Britain

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Adam Chapman

By Adam Chapman

Published: 25/06/2024

- 10:17

Updated: 25/06/2024

- 14:10
  • Invasive meningococcal disease has been detected in Britain
  • The infectious disease was traced to Britons returning from Saudi Arabia
  • It is a major cause of meningitis, which kills one in 10 people infected
  • The Ministry of Health has issued travel recommendations for pilgrims

An urgent health warning has been issued after cases of a potentially lethal infectious disease were detected in Britain.

Invasive meningococcal disease has been traced to people returning from Saudi Arabia.

The Foreign Office-supported website Travel Health Pro revealed that as of 21 June 2024, a total of 14 instances of the potentially disease have been identified in people returning from an Umrah pilgrimage, three cases of which have been detected in the UK.

The United States has recorded five cases, France four, and Norway and the Netherlands each with one case.

Umrah pilgrimage

The potentially disease has been identified in people coming back from an Umrah pilgrimage

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Meningococcal disease is serious and can be deadly "in hours", warns the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). It is a major cause of septicaemia and meningitis, which kills one in 10 infected individuals.

Research has found that nearly 90 percent of children and teenagers who are killed by invasive meningococcal disease die within 24 hours of diagnosis. According to the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control, it has an eight to 15 percent case-fatality ratio.

Survivors may still suffer from neurological and hearing impairment or amputation in up to 20 percent of cases, the health body warns.

The symptoms of meningococcal disease can vary based on the type of illness. Common symptoms of meningococcal meningitis include sudden fever, headache, and stiff neck.

Other symptoms may include nausea, vomiting, increased sensitivity to light, and confusion. Children and infants may show different signs and symptoms, such as inactivity, irritability, vomiting, or poor reflexes.

Thankfully, vaccines can help prevent meningococcal disease.

Several vaccinations offer some protection against meningitis, for example. Children should receive most of these as part of the NHS vaccination schedule.

In response to the latest outbreak, the Ministry of Health has issued advice for pilgrims, including:

  • Wearing facemasks in crowded areas
  • Frequent hand washing with soap and water or disinfectant, particularly after coughing, sneezing, using the toilet, before handling food, and after touching animals
  • Using disposable tissues when coughing or sneezing and disposing of them properly
  • Avoiding contact with sick individuals and not sharing personal items
  • Steering clear of camels in farms, markets, or barns
  • Refraining from consuming unpasteurised milk or raw meat or animal products that haven't been thoroughly cooked, as well as taking measures to prevent insect bites.
Woman dizzy

Meningococcal disease can be deadly in hours

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How worried should you be?

The risk of meningococcal disease in travellers is generally considered to be low.

However, as Travel Health Pro notes, there is currently no routine surveillance for travel-related meningococcal disease in England, Wales and Northern Ireland.

Establishing whether a case of meningococcal disease is travel-related can be difficult but is important to ensure that any subsequent public health action will target the appropriate contacts, the Foreign Office-supported website says.

Rather than acquiring infection overseas, a traveller can be colonised with meningococcal bacteria before travel and develop symptoms whilst abroad, it warns.

A link with travel can be inferred through a short interval between returning from abroad and symptom onset or when a strain of the infectious disease rarely seen in the UK is isolated.

An example of this occurred in 2000 when a total of 27 confirmed cases of meningococcal disease were reported in England and Wales. These cases were associated with pilgrims returning from the Hajj; 10 cases were in pilgrims themselves; the others were contacts of the pilgrims.

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