Aussie parents call on local govt to update vaccine programme after 23yo daughter dies from meningococcal B

Blair and Jodie Fidler, split-screen with their late daughter Bella
Bella Fidler (R), a 23-year-old from the Gold Coast, died in December last year, less than 24 hours after she first complained of feeling unwell. Photo credit: 7NEWS / Supplied to 7NEWS by Blair Fidler

The parents of a young Australian woman who died within 24 hours of falling ill with meningococcal B are calling for urgent changes to the Queensland vaccination programme.

Bella Fidler, a 23-year-old from the Gold Coast, died in December last year, less than 24 hours after she first complained of feeling unwell. 

"It's hard to believe that somebody young and healthy can walk into a hospital in Australia and five hours later they're brain-dead," her father, Blair Fidler, told the local breakfast show Sunrise alongside her mother Jodie, as reported by 7 News

The 23-year-old, who had a temperature, initially believed she may have contracted COVID-19, but throughout the day her fever improved, her parents said.

At about 1.30am however, Fiddler woke her parents and told them she didn't "feel right", her father recalled. They took her to the John Flynn Private Hospital, near the family's home in Tugun.

After arriving at the hospital, Fidler's condition rapidly deteriorated: she suffered a seizure and did not regain consciousness. She later suffered a cardiac arrest and was placed on life support, before being rushed to the neurology department at Gold Coast University Hospital.

Test results revealed Fidler was suffering from bacterial meningitis, a life-threatening infection of the membranes, or meninges, that protect the spinal cord and brain. When the membranes become infected, they swell and press against the organs, which can be fatal. 

It was later discovered that Fidler's infection had developed from her contracting meningococcal B: meningococcal disease causes both meningitis and septicaemia, or blood poisoning.

She was kept on life support to allow her loved ones time to say their farewells, but her condition was not survivable. She died less than a day after first becoming unwell. 

Bella Fidler
Bella Fidler died in December after developing meningitis. Photo credit: Supplied to 7News by Blair Fidler

It was only after her death that Blair and Jodie realised their daughter hadn't been vaccinated against meningococcal B - despite receiving the meningococcal vaccine when she was in high school.

The free vaccine covers the A, C, W, and Y types, but not the B strain. According to 7News, a vaccine for the B strain is available privately, but costs about AU$380 - only South Australia provides the jab free of charge. 

Blair told Sunrise he was "absolutely shocked" to learn that the state's vaccine programme did not cover the B strain of the disease, adding: "I guess the thing that really shocked us is the Australian Technical Advisory Group on Immunisation (ATAGI) recommends this for all infants and teenagers, but when we spoke to our friends and our family, almost nobody was aware of this."

"We just want people to be aware and informed about it because it's not something many people really know about," Jodie said.

"We live on the Gold Coast and there's going to be lots of music festivals, big schoolies events coming up in the coming months. Those are like the prime locations for a meningococcal outbreak to occur. It's really important that people are aware and educated about it."

Blair and Jodie Fidler
Blair and Jodie Fidler believed their daughter had been fully protected against the disease - but learned after her death that the state's vaccination schedule doesn't include the vaccine against meningococcal B. Photo credit: 7News

The family are now calling on the Queensland government to urgently update its meningococcal immunisation programme to cover the B strain, in order to protect other young people from suffering like Fidler. A petition has been created, with Blair and Jodie urging other parents to sign it. 

"It is very expensive and many families can't afford it, so that's exactly why we're asking the Queensland government to put this on the schedule," Blair told Sunrise. "Hopefully, we can avoid this situation for other families in future."

As per 7News, a Queensland MP has expressed her support for the Fidler's cause. Laura Gerber, the MP for Currumbin, noted that meningococcal B is "vaccine-preventable" and that cases in the state are already on the rise. 

"At the moment in Queensland there are 14 cases. That's a 71 percent increase on last year, and the peak is the end of winter, so we haven't even reached the stage where we're going to see cases rise," she said.

"We do not need to wait for a deadly outbreak in order to vaccinate our children against this disease… If our children are given the B strain as part of the state-based immunisation programme, then they can be protected."

Meningococcal in New Zealand

According to the Ministry of Health, most cases of meningococcal disease in New Zealand are caused by group or strain B. Since 2017 there has been an increasing number of cases of meningococcal disease caused by groups W and Y, and group W is now the second most common.

According to New Zealand's Meningitis Foundation, two different vaccines are required to be protected against the most common forms of meningococcal disease: one for the A, C, W, and Y strains, and another to protect against the B strain. The vaccines to protect against meningococcal A, C, W, and Y are free in Aotearoa. 

As of March 1, 2023, rangatahi or young people aged 13 to 25 entering into, or in their first year of certain close-living situations, are eligible for free meningococcal B vaccines until February 28, 2024. This means both the meningococcal A, C, W, Y and B vaccines are currently available free of charge for this group.

Close-living situations include boarding schools, hostels, halls of residence, military barracks, and prisons.

Also on March 1, the meningococcal B vaccine was added to the National Immunisation Schedule for babies at three months, five months, and 12 months old, as part of their usual scheduled immunisations. All tamariki under five who have not been fully immunised against MenB can catch up for free until August 31, 2025.

For others wishing to be protected against meningococcal B, the vaccine is available through family doctors and costs approximately $150 per dose.