What is meningococcal disease?

Meningococcal disease can refer to any illness that is caused by the type of bacteria called Neisseria meningitidis, also known as meningococcus [muh-ning-goh-KOK-us]. These illnesses are often severe and include infections of the lining of the brain and spinal cord (meningitis) and bloodstream infections (bacteremia or septicemia). Meningococcus bacteria are spread through the exchange of respiratory and throat secretions like spit (e.g., by living in close quarters, kissing). Meningococcal disease can be treated with antibiotics, but quick medical attention is extremely important. Keeping up to date with recommended vaccines is the best defense against meningococcal disease.

What is meningococcal meningitis?

Meningitis is an inflammation of the covering of the brain and spinal cord. Meningitis can be caused by many different viruses and bacteria. Meningococcal meningitis is a type of meningitis caused by the bacterium Neisseria meningitidis. It is rare in countries like the United States where meningococcal vaccine is part of the routine vaccination schedule for adolescents.

Who is most likely to get meningococcal disease?

The disease is most common in infants and people with certain medical conditions, such as people without a spleen or with blood disorders. People at risk also include adolescents, in particular youth living in close quarters, as well as the elderly and travelers to countries where meningococcal disease is common. Other factors that make it more likely an individual will develop meningococcal disease include having an underlying chronic illness, and being exposed to cigarette smoke (either directly or second-hand).

How is meningococcal disease spread?

Neisseria meningitidis bacteria are spread from person to person by contact with an infected person’s saliva or respiratory droplets. About 10 percent of people have this type of bacteria in the back of their nose and throat with no signs or symptoms and never develop an illness. People with prolonged or close contact such as persons in the same household, roommates, or anyone with direct contact with a patient's oral secretions, meaning saliva or spit, are at increased risk of getting the infection. The bacteria cannot live for more than a few minutes outside the body, so these bacteria are not as contagious as germs that cause the common cold or the flu. The bacteria are not spread by casual contact or by simply breathing the air where a person with meningococcal disease has been.

What are the symptoms of meningococcal disease?

  • High fever
  • Severe headache
  • Stiff neck
  • Confusion
  • Nausea, vomiting
  • Lack of appetite
  • Sensitivity to bright light
  • Sleepiness or trouble waking up

How is meningococcal disease treated?

Health care providers prescribe antibiotics to treat meningococcal disease. People with meningococcal disease are no longer able to spread it to others after taking an appropriate antibiotic for 24 hours. People may also need advanced medical care, which could include treatment in an intensive care unit.

What steps can I take to lower my chances of becoming infected or infecting others?

Keeping up to date with recommended immunizations is the best defense against meningococcal disease. Maintaining healthy habits, like getting plenty of rest and not coming into close contact with people who are sick, can also help.

Who needs to be vaccinated?

Routine vaccination with a meningococcal A,C,Y and W vaccine is recommended for adolescents aged 11 or 12 years, with a booster dose at age 16 years. The meningitis B vaccines are recommended for people 10 years or older who are at increased risk of meningitis infection. These vaccines may also be given to anyone 16 through 23 years old to provide short-term protection against most strains of serogroup B meningococcal disease, based on discussions between the patient and health care provider. The preferred age for vaccination is 16 through 18 years. The following adult populations are at risk for meningococcal disease: college freshmen living in dormitories who were not previously immunized; microbiologists who are routinely exposed to N. meningitidis; military recruits; persons who travel to or reside in countries in which N. meningitidis is hyperendemic or epidemic; persons who have terminal complement component deficiencies; and persons who have functional or anatomic asplenia. Adults who have human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) type 1 infection are at increased risk for meningococcal infection, and vaccination should be considered in this group as well.

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