Twelve cases of a deadly infectious disease have been reported in the Bay of Plenty this year.

The 12 cases of meningococcal disease were reported in the Bay of Plenty and Lakes District Health Board areas, which covers the Tauranga, Rotorua, Taupō and Whakatāne areas. In 2017, there were 11 cases and in 2016, there were eight.

However, the Ministry of Health is warning of a particularly deadly strain of the infectious disease known as group W (MenW).

Director of Public Health, Dr Caroline McElnay, said there had been a sharp increase in MenW cases nationally since the second half of 2017, with 12 cases reported in the whole of 2017, including three deaths.

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This year, there have been 24 cases, including six deaths. Typically, there are up to six cases per year of MenW, Dr McElnay said.

In the Bay of Plenty and Lakes districts, there have been four cases this year to date. In both 2017 and 2016 there were none.

"This MenW strain is associated with high mortality rates and affects all age groups. Northland has been the worst affected, with seven cases so far this year, including three deaths," Dr McElnay said.

Toi Te Ora Public Health Organisation chief medical officer Dr Phil Shoemack said the earlier people were diagnosed, the better treatment they could receive.

Early symptoms of meningococcal disease could be mistaken for influenza. However, the big difference was the rapid deterioration of a person with it, Shoemack said.

"This bug causes severe illness very quickly, with an amazingly rapid onset. Literally, one hour could be completely different to the next."

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Urgent medical treatment was crucial, Shoemack said.

"A fair proportion of people who get meningococcal disease, even if they survive, many end up with potential life-long problems. It can affect their hearing, it can affect their brain function and it can also cause blood poisoning. In severe cases, it can result in the individual ending up with amputation of fingers, toes or limbs."

Like influenza, meningococcal disease has many strains. There is a vaccine which covers most of these except for group B, which is the most common form of meningococcal disease.

In total, there have been 96 meningococcal disease cases nationally.

The year prior there were 112. The Ministry of Health states the annual number of cases in New Zealand has increased steadily since 2014, when 45 cases were reported.

Meningococcal disease - what to look for

Meningococcal disease can be difficult to diagnose because it can look like other illnesses, such as the flu. Symptoms of meningitis can develop suddenly and include:

- a high fever

- headache

- sleepiness

- joint and muscle pains.

More specific symptoms can include:
- a stiff neck
- dislike of bright lights
- vomiting
- crying
- refusal to feed (in infants)
- a rash consisting of reddish-purple pin-prick spots or bruises.

What to do

If you or anyone in your family has these symptoms, call your doctor straight away or dial 111. Say what the symptoms are. You can also call Healthline free on

0800 611 116

, 24 hours a day.

Source - Ministry of Health