DR Veral Vishnoi admits he may have some personal bias when it comes to advocating for access to vaccines to all strains of meningococcal. But having a front row seat to the devastation the deadly disease can leave behind had been the ultimate motivation to educate others.
The Newcastle doctor was in his second year of medical school in Townsville, in 2011, when his friend and fellow student, Gurpeet, had some flu-like symptoms.
“We lived at college, and we’d just returned for second semester,” Dr Vishnoi said. “It was on the Tuesday that he said he was feeling a bit sick. On the Wednesday morning, he didn’t go to class. We tried to check on him, but when he didn’t answer the door, we thought he was probably sleeping.”
But when they returned from the day’s classes, he wasn’t at dinner.
There was no response from inside his room.
“We got access to his room via a master key, and unfortunately, we found that he had passed away in his room,” Dr Vishnoi said.
“It was later confirmed as meningococcal, strand B.”
Then, on the Friday morning, Dr Vishnoi started to have fevers himself. He was shaky. Shivery.
“And in the context of what had just happened, my friends forced me to go to hospital,” he said. “It was there that I got quite ill. But because I managed to present in such early stages of the infection, I was able to make a pretty prompt recovery.”
He was lucky to have only suffered some hearing loss in his left ear. Now he is a passionate advocate for meningococcal vaccines, and breaking the common misconception that the vaccine available on the National Immunisation Program (NIP) covered all strains of the disease. He is speaking out following the release of survey results that showed 72 per cent of NSW parents were not aware different strains of meningococcal required different vaccinations, and 81 per cent were not aware the NIP did not immunise against all vaccine-preventable strains of meningococcal, such as the B strand.
“You can be vaccinated for it, you just have to pay out of pocket,” he said. “Other illnesses like the cold and flu generally take one-to-three days to manifest. But with meningococcal, you go from being completely well, to, in the space of half a day, becoming very unwell with the earlier symptoms – muscle aches, fevers and pain.
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“By the time you get the characteristic rash, you could be losing a limb or looking at mortality.”
Vaccination was key in high risk groups; babies and those under five, and in teenagers and young adults.
“Since we started offering the vaccinations, cases dropped off. If we do something more now, it’ll probably drop off again,” he said.
Dr Vishnoi said he felt a responsibility to educate others about the disease, particularly after losing a dear friend.
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“Especially because we were medical students, myself and my other college friends who went through this, we all feel like it’s our duty to really help people and remind them of how meningococcal can affect your life,” he said.
“It took a big toll on everyone at the time, and we don’t want anyone else to go through that.”
Eliza Ault-Connell, director of Meningococcal Australia, said while rare, meningococcal disease was unpredictable and could progress rapidly, making it difficult to diagnose.
“Tragically, despite modern antibiotic treatment, between five and 10 per cent of people with the disease may die within a day or two of seeking treatment. For survivors like me, the long-term disabilities can be life changing.”
Meningococcal disease is a bacterial infection of the blood or membranes that line the spinal cord and brain, and it can lead to death within 24 hours.
Most people survive meningococcal disease but up to one-in-ten may die, while one-in-five infected may suffer serious long-term disabilities, including brain damage, deafness, scarring or loss of limbs.
Meningococcal Australia says vaccination against the C strain of has been available on the federally-funded NIP since 2003. Then in 2017, the NIP replaced the MenC vaccine with the quadrivalent vaccine to protect against meningococcal strains A, C, W and Y at 12 months of age.
Vaccines to help protect against MenB, MenC and Men ACWY are available on private prescription.