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 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 10-15% 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.
What are the symptoms of meningococcal disease?
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 7 days before they feel sick, and while they are sick until 24 hours after the start of appropriate 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, microbiologists, military recruits, people with weak immune systems such as HIV-positive persons, and people traveling to parts of the world where there are more cases of the disease, especially sub-Saharan Africa. Gay and bisexual men and other men who have sex with men (MSM) are also at increased risk for getting meningococcal disease. There have been several outbreaks of meningococcal disease among MSM reported in the United States.
People who have been in close contact with an infected person should get antibiotics to prevent illness. The Health Department will notify you if you are a close contact to a case of meningococcal disease.
Is there a vaccine that will protect me from meningococcal disease?
Yes. There are several vaccines available in the United States. 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. Talk to your doctor to find out if you or your family needs the vaccine, and which vaccine is best for you.
Who should get vaccinated?
All children should receive meningococcal vaccine at age 11-12 years, with a booster dose at age 16-18 years. The vaccine is also strongly recommended for:
- College freshmen 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
- Microbiologists routinely exposed to isolates of Neisseria meningitides
- Military recruits
- 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
- Transgender persons who have sex with men
Useful Links about Meningococcal Disease
For the Public
- Fact Sheet: Invasive Meningococcal Disease [English] [Spanish] [Chinese]
- Immunization Action Coalition Meningococcal Disease Fact Sheet
- CDC Meningococcal Vaccine Information
- CDC Meningococcal Disease Information
- Meningococcal Outbreak Information & Vaccines for Gay, Bisexual, and Other Men who Have Sex with Men