What is meningococcal disease?
Meningococcal disease (sometimes called invasive meningococcal disease or IMD) is a severe infection caused by the bacteria Neisseria meningitidis. Neisseria meningitidis can infect the meninges, a thin layer of tissue that covers the brain and spinal cord. It can also cause an infection of the blood. If not treated, meningococcal disease leads to death in 50% of cases. Even if diagnosed early and treated with antibiotics it still causes death in 5-15% of people. Of those who live, permanent brain damage, hearing loss, kidney failure, loss of arms or legs, or chronic nervous system problems can occur.
How is meningococcal disease different from meningitis?
“Meningitis” means inflammation of the meninges. The meninges are tissues that cover the brain and spinal cord. Meningitis may happen for many reasons. The most common causes of meningitis are infections with bacteria and viruses. Meningitis can also occur from physical injury, cancer or certain drugs. Meningococcal disease is caused by bacteria called Neisseria meningitidis. It is important to know about meningococcal disease because it is more likely to spread from person to person and it can be deadly.
What are the symptoms of meningococcal disease?
The symptoms of meningococcal disease vary, but include:
- High fever (more than 104°F)
- Stiff neck
- Sensitivity to light
Symptoms may develop in a few hours, but usually develop over the course of 1 to 2 days.
Often, infants do not have the symptoms listed above. They may be very sleepy, irritable or not eat well. Symptoms such as headache, stiff neck, or fever may not occur, or may be difficult to recognize.
How does meningococcal disease spread?
Meningococcal disease is spread by contact with spit, phlegm, or other fluids from the nose or mouth of someone who has the disease. Someone who has had close contact with an infected person can become infected, but taking the correct antibiotic right away can prevent illness.
Close contact includes:
- Sneezing, or coughing on someone
- Living in a crowded space, such as in dormitories
- Sharing eating or drinking utensils or other items placed in the mouth or nose
A person with meningococcal disease can spread infection to others for several days before they feel sick, and while they are sick until 24 hours after the start of antibiotics.
Who is at risk for meningococcal disease?
Anyone can get meningococcal disease, but it is more common in infants and children. First-year college students living in dorms are also at higher risk. Other people at higher risk include people who live with a person ill with meningococcal disease, people with weak immune systems, and people traveling to parts of the world where there are more cases of the disease, especially sub-Saharan Africa.
What should I do if I have been around someone who is infected?
People who have been in close contact with an infected person should get antibiotics to prevent illness. If you are a close contact, your medical provider can give you a prescription for the right antibiotic. Close contacts include:
- Household members
- Other kids at the same daycare
- Someone who has been kissing or sharing eating utensils or beverage containers
- Someone who has been directly sneezed or coughed on
Close contacts should also watch for fever or other symptoms. Casual contacts, such as classmates or officemates, do not usually need to take antibiotics unless they feel sick. Classmates are different from kids at the same daycare because kids at daycare are more likely to share things they have put in their mouths, and more likely to sneeze or cough on each other.
Is there a vaccine that will protect me from meningococcal disease?
Yes. There are several vaccines available in the U.S. Some vaccines provide protection for four types of meningococcal disease (types A, C, W, and Y) while others provide protection for only one type (type B). All are very safe and effective. These vaccines protect against most meningococcal disease. Like many vaccines, they may cause mild side effects, such as redness and pain at the injection site. Talk to your doctor to find out if you or your family needs the vaccine and which vaccine is best for you. Some children and adults need a booster shot of the vaccine. Speak to your doctor to see if you or your children need a booster.
Who should get vaccinated?
The vaccine is strongly recommended for:
- All kids entering middle school (11 to 12 years old) and high school (14 to 15 years old)
- College students living in dormitories, who have not yet been vaccinated
- Travelers to areas of the world with high rates of meningococcal disease, particularly sub-Saharan Africa
- People with certain medical conditions like a damaged or missing spleen or terminal complement deficiency
- HIV positive persons ages 2 months and older
- Due to outbreaks of meningococcal disease in several US cities among men who have sex with men, meningococcal vaccination is also recommended in San Francisco for:
- Gay, bisexual, and other men who have sex with men
- Trans men and women who have sex with men
- Female sex partners of men who have sex with men
How is meningococcal disease treated?
Meningococcal disease is treated with antibiotics. It is critical to start antibiotics as soon as possible. People who believe they may have meningococcal disease should seek medical care immediately.
Useful Links about Meningococcal Disease
For the Public
- Fact Sheet: Invasive Meningococcal Disease [English] [Spanish] [Chinese]
- Immunization Action Coalition site about meningococcal disease
- CDC’s site about meningococcal vaccination