What is meningococcal disease?

B220/800: Coloured TEM of Neisseria meningitidis bacteria...CREDIT: ALFRED PASIEKA/SCIENCE PHOTO LIBRARY Neisseria meningitidis. Coloured Transmission Electron Micrograph (TEM) of a section through the bacteria Neisseria meningitidis. They are an agent which cause bacterial meningitis. These non-motile Gram-negative coccus (spherical) bacteria occur as two cells (orange) in a capsule (yellow). A number of such two-celled diplococci are seen. Neisseria meningitidis is an obligate human parasite. It causes meningococcal (cerebrospinal) meningitis, the inflammation of connective tissue membranes lining the brain and spinal cord. Symptoms include headache, fever, stiff neck, vomiting, delirium, sometimes death. Treatment is with antibiotics. Magnification: x20,000 at 6x4.5cm size.

Meningococcal disease is any illness caused by Neisseria meningitidis bacteria, also known as meningococcus. These illnesses include meningitis, bacteremia, and septicemia.

What is Neisseria meningitidis?

Neisseria meningitidis is a type of bacteria that lives in the back of the nose and throat.  About 1 in 10 people are carriers of neisseria meningitidis. There are 5 serogroups: A, B, C, W, and Y. B, C, and Y cause most of the meningococcal illnesses in the U.S.

How is meningococcal disease spread?

Meningococcal disease is spread from person-to-person contact. The bacteria spreads through close or lengthy contact between two people by respiratory or throat secretions. It typically spreads between people who live together. However, the bacteria is not spread as easily as some viruses, such as the common cold virus, so it does not spread through casual contact.

What are the symptoms of meningococcal disease?

Meningococcal disease can cause meningitis, which is the inflammation of the brain and spinal cord. Symptoms usually show 3-7 days after exposure to the bacteria. Symptoms may be harder to notice in babies or small children. Their symptoms may include inactivity, irritability, vomiting, and poor feeding. Meningitis symptoms in adults include:

  • Fever
  • Headache
  • Stiff neck
  • Nausea/Vomiting
  • Sensitivity to light
  • Confusion

Meningococcal disease can also cause bloodstream infections, septicemia or bacteremia. Septicemia is the more dangerous of the two. Symptoms of septicemia and bacteremia include:

  • Fever
  • Fatigue
  • Vomiting
  • Cold hands and feet
  • Chills
  • Severe aches in the muscles, joints, chest, or abdomen
  • Rapid breathing
  • Diarrhea
  • Dark purple rash

Meningococcal disease can be very serious and even fatal. Death can occur in hours in fatal cases. In non-fatal cases, meningococcal disease can result in the amputation of limbs and skin grafts. If you believe that you or your child has meningococcal disease, contact your doctor immediately.

Who is at risk for meningococcal disease?

  • Infants
  • Adolescents and young adults
  • People in a large community setting, such as a dorm building
  • People without spleens
  • People who have traveled to Sub-Saharan Africa

How is meningococcal disease diagnosed?

Early diagnoses of meningococcal disease is very important. If the doctor suspects you have the disease, a blood or spinal fluid sample will be taken and sent to the laboratory for proper diagnoses. A sample of the bacteria may be cultured in order to determine the best treatment option.

How is meningococcal disease treated?

Antibiotics may be given to help prevent the disease from becoming severe. Other treatments such as breathing support, low blood pressure, and wound care may be necessary to treat symptoms.

Some people do not seek treatment early enough, and the disease becomes very severe. Even with antibiotic treatment, 10-15 out of 100 people will die as a result of meningococcal disease. About 11-19 out of 100 survivors will experience long-term health effects such as deafness, nervous system problems, or brain damage.

How can I prevent getting meningococcal disease?

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The best way to prevent Meningococcal Disease is to stay updated on recommended vaccines.

The best way to prevent meningococcal disease is to stay up-to-date with recommended vaccinations. There are vaccinations to protect you against B, C, and Y strains of Neisseria meningitidis. Maintaining a healthy lifestyle and staying away from sick people can help you prevent disease.

People who have had close or lengthy contact with somebody infected with meningococcal disease should get antibiotic treatment, prophylaxis, to prevent getting meningococcal disease. Talk to your doctor if you have been in contact with a friend, family member, roommate, patient, or significant other that has meningococcal disease.

For more information on Meningococcal Disease, click here.