Haemophilus influenzae type b (Hib) is a life-threatening bacterial infection that can cause serious illness including meningitis (inflammation of the brain covering) and pneumonia. Symptoms include severe headache, stiff neck, convulsions or seizures, severe drowsiness, difficulty waking up, loss of consciousness or difficulty with breathing. Seek urgent medical attention if you think your child has any symptoms. All children under five years of age should be immunised against Hib.
Haemophilus influenzae type b (Hib) is a bacterium that causes a life-threatening infection that can lead to serious illness, especially in children. Conditions such as meningitis (inflammation of the membranes covering the brain), epiglottitis (inflammation of the flap and the top of the windpipe) and pneumonia can develop very quickly and may require urgent medical attention.
The disease caused by Hib is spread mainly through coughing or sneezing, or contact with secretions from the nose and throat of an infected person. Despite its name, Hib is a bacterium and is not a form of influenza (flu), which is caused by a virus.
Before the introduction of immunisation in 1993, Hib was a common cause of life-threatening infection in children under five. Routine immunisation has been highly effective in reducing the incidence of this disease in Australia. Children under five years of age and people at increased risk of developing Hib infection should still be immunised.
Symptoms of Hib infection
Seek urgent medical attention if you suspect your child has symptoms including:
- severe headache
- stiff neck
- convulsions (fits) or seizures
- severe drowsiness
- difficulty waking up
- loss of consciousness
- difficulty with breathing.
Complications of Hib infection
If your child is not immunised and contracts Hib, they could develop:
- meningitis – an infection of the membrane covering the brain (signs include fever, stiff neck, drowsiness, irritability and refusal of food)
- epiglottitis – inflammation of the flap at the top of the windpipe (epiglottis), which can block a child’s breathing (signs include severe breathing difficulties, fever, restlessness and irritability)
- pneumonia – lung inflammation (symptoms include fever, cough, chest pains and breathing problems, such as shortness of breath)
- septic arthritis – joint infection (symptoms include joint pain, swelling and reduced mobility of the joint)
- cellulitis – infection of the tissue under the skin, usually on the face.
Causes of Hib infection
Hib bacteria live in the nose and throat of most healthy people without causing illness. There are a number of types of Haemophilus influenzae bacteria and infection with the type b (Hib) bacterium can cause a range of conditions in vulnerable people, some of which are medical emergencies.
Disease caused by Hib is spread mainly through person-to-person contact with infected droplets (coughing or sneezing) or secretions from an infected person’s nose and throat. The usual time between contact with the bacteria and the development of the illness is around two to four days. The person with Hib is infectious for as long as the bacteria stays in the nose or throat. Generally 24 to 48 hours of appropriate antibiotic treatment is required to clear the infection.
If your child has a Hib infection, they should be kept away from childcare or school until a course of appropriate antibiotics is completed and your doctor has confirmed that they are no longer infectious.
In some circumstances, people who live with a person with Hib infection may require preventative antibiotics. The Department of Health will guide healthcare professionals if this is the case.
Diagnosis of Hib infection
Since other types of bacteria can cause similar infections so it is important to test specifically for the presence of Hib. Diagnosis may include:
- physical examination
- blood test
- test of the fluid around the spine (cerebrospinal fluid) collected using a needle (lumbar puncture)
- tests of other specimens.
Treatment for Hib infection
Depending on the illness, treatment may include:
- admission to hospital
- a course of the appropriate antibiotics.
Immunisation against Hib
Immunisation is the best protection against Hib infection and is recommended for all infants, young children and adults at high risk.
Protection against Hib is available under the National Immunisation Program Schedule. In Victoria, the Hib vaccine is offered free of charge for:
- all children at two, four, six months – the first three primary doses of Hib vaccine are given as part of a combined vaccine against diphtheria, tetanus, pertussis (whooping cough), hepatitis B, polio and Hib vaccine (six-in-one vaccine)
- all children at 12 months – this fourth booster dose of Hib vaccine is given as a combined vaccine against both Hib and meningococcal disease (from July 2013)
- children from 16 months up to 59 months inclusive who have had no previous doses require a single catch-up dose
- children up to and including nine years of age – can receive catch-up doses of the combined vaccine (diphtheria, tetanus, pertussis (whooping cough), hepatitis B, polio and Hib vaccine).
Pregnancy and Hib immunisation
Hib vaccine is not recommended for women who are pregnant or breastfeeding, although if you are pregnant and do not have a spleen, you should speak with your doctor.
Where to get help
- Your doctor
- In an emergency, always call triple zero (000)
- Emergency department of your nearest hospital
- Local government immunisation service
- Maternal and Child Health Line (24 hours) Tel. 132 229
- NURSE-ON-CALL Tel. 1300 60 60 24 – for expert health information and advice (24 hours, 7 days)
- Immunisation Program, Department of Health, Victorian Government Tel. 1300 882 008
- National Immunisation Information Line Tel. 1800 671 811
Things to remember
- Hib is a life-threatening infection that can lead to serious illness, especially in children.
- Symptoms include severe headache, stiff neck, convulsions or seizures, severe drowsiness, difficulty waking up, loss of consciousness or difficulty with breathing.
- Seek urgent medical attention if you think your child has any symptoms.
- Immunisation of children should continue even though the number of serious illnesses from Hib has greatly decreased as a result of the Hib immunisation program.
- Babies and children under five years of age should receive the full course of immunisation against Hib.
You might also be interested in:
- Flu (influenza).
- Flu (influenza) - immunisation.
- Immunisation - childhood.
- Immunisation - DTP, polio, hep B, and Hib.
- Immunisation - facts and misconceptions.
- Infections - bacterial and viral.
- Pneumococcal disease - immunisation.
- Whooping cough.
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Last reviewed: June 2014
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