Wellingtonians are being warned to be alert to the symptoms of meningococcal disease after the death of one person and the infection of four others in the region this month.

Wellington Region Medical Officer of Health Dr Annette Nesdale said the region - which covered Wellington, the Hutt Valley and Wairarapa - had experienced 13 to 18 cases of meningococcal disease each year for the past five years. This year 10 cases had been confirmed but, alarmingly, five had occurred this month.

Of those, three were children aged under five and two were young adults. The person who died was a young adult, whose family was "deeply in shock'', Dr Nesdale said.

"Meningococcal disease starts out looking pretty similar to a flu-like illness but the illness can develop very rapidly over a number of hours and people are often surprised by both the severity and by how quickly it progresses,'' she told APNZ.

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"One of the things we're wanting to do is help people to be aware of `what are the signs of meningococcal disease' and also how and when to seek medical help.''

Meningococcal disease is most common in babies, young children and teenagers but adults were also at risk.

Symptoms include:

* fever;

* aching muscles and joints;

* feeling sleepy;

* stiff neck;

* bad headache; and

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* aversion to bright lights.

A rash which looked like blood spots under the skin was a late sign of the disease, so people should not wait until they saw that, Dr Nesdale said.

"One of the key things is that people get worse rapidly so having a way of keeping an eye on people and checking on them, so that if they do get worse they can seek medical help for them, is important,'' Dr Nesdale said.

"We know it's around at the moment so what we want is people to be able to identify it and be able to seek medical help early.''

Meningococcal disease is a bacteria which can cause two types of illness: meningitis, which is an inflammation of the covering of the brain and spinal cord; or, septacaemia (blood poisoning), where the bacteria spreads through the whole body.

Identifying which strain someone had was "a bit like a whole series of names'', Dr Nesdale said.

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"We know someone has meningococcal disease caused by the meningococcal bacteria and it goes to a specialist laboratory to find out what its surname is, that is whether it is group B or group C, or one of the other groups,'' she said.

We don't yet know the typing of the person who (died), what type it was, whether it was a B or a C.''

However, of the 10 cases in the region this year, two were group C and six group B.

Neither group is rountinely immunised for, although Northland District Health Board has just launched a school-based immunisation campaign for group C after six people in the area contracted since July, with two people dying.

Young children, teenagers and young adults are most at risk from group C, and the Northland campaign aims to vaccinate at least 85 percent of those aged one to 20.

Dr Nesdale said the Wellington spike could not be compared to the scale of the Northland outbreak as there was a much bigger population base in the capital region.

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"Sometimes we do see these spikes in meningococcal disease, and it's usually in late winter or early spring and it usually follows on after there has been a lot of influenza and respiratory illnesses in the community, because people are coughing and sneezing a lot more,'' she said.

"So it's a really good time for everyone to know the signs and symptoms and know how they would seek medical help if they needed to.''