About Meningococcal Disease

What is meningococcal disease?

Meningococcal disease is a bacterial infection that can cause meningitis, sepsis, pneumonia, or joint infections. Meningococcal disease can be quite severe and may result in brain damage, hearing loss, or loss of limbs. Meningococcal disease is one of the leading causes of bacterial meningitis in the United States.

What are the signs and symptoms of meningococcal disease?

Signs and symptoms of meningococcal disease include high fever, headache, stiff neck, or a development of a dark purple rash. These symptoms at first may appear similar to other illnesses such as the flu, but the symptoms progress rapidly and persons with meningococcal disease can be seriously ill 12-24 hours after symptoms start. A small infant may only appear slow or inactive, or be irritable, have vomiting, or be feeding poorly.

How is meningococcal disease diagnosed?

Early diagnosis and treatment are very important. If symptoms occur, the patient should see a doctor immediately. The diagnosis is usually made by growing bacteria from a sample of spinal fluid or blood.

Can meningococcal disease be treated?

Meningococcal disease can be treated with antibiotics and supportive care. It is important, however, that treatment be started early in the course of the disease. Even with appropriate treatment, there is a 5-15% chance the patient will not survive. Of people who do survive meningococcal disease, 10-20% have serious long-term effects from the illness.

Is meningococcal disease contagious?

Yes, meningococcal disease is contagious, but only when a person has been in very close contact with a person who becomes sick, such as a household member or a girlfriend or boyfriend. The bacteria are spread through the exchange of respiratory and throat secretions (i.e., coughing, kissing). The bacteria are ot spread by casual contact or by simply breathing the air where a person with meningococcal disease has been. Persons who have been in close contact with a person who develops meningococcal disease should receive antibiotics to prevent them from getting the disease. Meningococcal disease is a reportable disease and the local health department will work with the case's doctor and family to determine who should be treated with preventive antibiotics.

Are there vaccines that protect against meningococcal disease?

Yes, there are vaccines against some serogroups of N. meningitidis.

There are two vaccines against N. meningitidis available in the U.S. Meningococcal polysaccharide vaccine (MPSV4 or Menomune®) has been approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and available since 1981. Meningococcal conjugate vaccine (MCV4 or MenactraT) was licensed more recently for 2-55 year-olds. Both vaccines can prevent 4 types of meningococcal disease, including 2 of the 3 types most common in the U.S. (serogroup C, Y, and W-135) and a type that causes epidemics in Africa (serogroup A). There is not currently a vaccine to prevent the third common type of meningococcal disease. But they do protect many people who might become sick if they didn't get the vaccine.

MCV4 is recommended for all children 11-18 years old, ideally at their routine preadolescent visit (11 to 12 years of age). For those who have never gotten MCV4 previously, a dose is recommended at high school entry. Other people at increased risk for whom routine vaccination is recommended are college freshmen living in dormitories, microbiologists who are routinely exposed to meningococcal bacteria, U.S. military recruits, anyone who has a damaged spleen or whose spleen has been removed; anyone who has terminal complement component deficiency (an immune system disorder), anyone who is traveling to the countries which have an outbreak of meningococcal disease, and those who might have been exposed to meningococcal disease during an outbreak. MCV4 is the preferred vaccine for people 2 to 55 years of age in these risk groups, and MPSV4 is preferred for, adults over 55 who are at risk.

Although large epidemics of meningococcal meningitis do not occur in the United States, some countries experience large, periodic epidemics. Overseas travelers should check to see if meningococcal vaccine is recommended for their destination. Travelers should receive the vaccine at least 1 week before departure, if possible. Information on areas for which meningococcal vaccine is recommended can be obtained by consulting with a traveling provider or visiting CDC's Traveler's Health website.

Centers for Disease Control

  • Infectious Disease: Meningitis (Meningococcal Disease and Viral Meningitis)
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