What is Meningococcal Disease?

Neisseria meningitidis is a bacteria that causes meningococcal disease. About 1 in 10 people have this bacteria in the back of their nose and throat, but have no signs or symptoms of disease. These people are called “carriers”. Unfortunately, for unknown reasons, Neisseria meningitides can transform from the carrier state into an invasive disease when transmitted to an otherwise healthy new person. Invasive meningococcal diseases can cause serious illness, including meningitis (a potentially deadly infection of the brain and spinal cord) or septicemia (rapid spread of disease toxins throughout the blood stream leading to multi-system organ failure). Both meningococcal meningitis and meningococcal septicemia can be difficult to diagnose in early stages. Despite the best of medical treatments, Meningococcal disease can lead to death in less than 24 hours in an otherwise healthy individual. Therefore, vaccination offers the best way to protect against meningococcal disease.

Facts and Statistics about Meningococcal Disease

Meningococcal disease is serious and can be deadly. The best way to prevent meningococcal disease is vaccination. To be fully protected, two vaccines are needed – one vaccine for type B and one vaccine for types A, C, W, and Y.

The data and recommendations about meningococcal type B vaccination are evolving rapidly. Several other countries including the United Kingdom and Canada already recommend vaccination for infants and other age groups. In the U.S., the vaccine is now available for adolescents and young adults between the ages of 10-25, with special recommendation for ages 16-23. Parents, adolescents, and young adults should talk to their doctors about getting vaccinated and keep up to date on the latest information.

About one in ten people carry meningococcal bacteria in their nose or throat (carriers). These people can unknowingly transmit the bacteria to other healthy individuals who may develop the disease. Transmission typically occurs through close contact like coughing, sneezing, kissing, or sharing eating utensil or drinks.

Meningococcal disease occurs most frequently in children younger than 1 year old, and also occurs more frequently in adolescents or young adults ages 16-23.

Meningococcal disease treatment involves early antibiotics and supportive care such as breathing machines and medications to treat low blood pressure. However, even early treatment may not prevent disability or death.

Around 1 in 10 people with meningococcal disease will not survive even with excellent medical care and antibiotics. Additionally, around 1 in 5 people who do survive will have serious consequences. Survivors may suffer from permanent disability, including brain damage, hearing loss, amputation, and loss of kidney function.

There are five subtypes (serogroups) of bacteria that cause most cases of meningococcal disease: serogroups A, B, C, W, and Y.

In both 2015 and 2016, meningococcal disease affected around 400 hundred people in the U.S. Furthermore, 30-40% of these cases led to death, severe brain damage, or amputations.

Meningitis Serogroup B (Men B) causes more than one in three cases of meningococcal disease in the U.S. Men B is the most common cause of meningococcal disease in infants and adolescents. There are approximately 150-200 cases of Men B annually in the U.S., including outbreaks on multiple college campuses over the past 5 years.

The ACIP and CDC recommends adolescents and young adults aged 16–23 years may be vaccinated with MenB vaccines to provide protection against serogroup B meningococcal disease.

The Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices (ACIP) and CDC currently recommends routine use of MenB vaccines among persons aged ≥10 years who are at increased risk for serogroup B meningococcal disease, including persons who have persistent complement component deficiencies; persons who have anatomic or functional asplenia; microbiologists who routinely are exposed to isolates of Neisseria meningitidis; and persons identified to be at increased risk because of a serogroup B meningococcal disease outbreak.

Risks, Symptoms, and Treatment

The bacteria Neisseria Meningitides are spread from person to person through close contact type behaviors. These behaviors can include coughing or sneezing, sharing drinks or eating utensils, kissing, or living in close household contacts, college dorm rooms, military barracks, etc. While anyone can develop meningococcal disease, infants and adolescents are at increased risk. Infants are at increased risk because they have relatively undeveloped immune systems. Adolescents and young adults due to close contact type behaviors.  Other risk factors include exposure to an outbreak, travel to certain countries, and certain medical conditions. Click here for more information about risk factors.

Symptoms normally develop within 3 to 7 days of exposure to a carrier. Symptoms of meningococcal disease can be mistaken for the flu, and they often progress rapidly. Symptoms may include fever, headache, neck and body aches, nausea and vomiting. As the disease progresses, symptoms may develop into confusion and rash. In infants, symptoms may be absent or hard to recognize.

Treatment of Meningococcal disease involves early antibiotics and supportive care such as breathing machines and medications to treat low blood pressure. However, even early treatment may not prevent disability or death. Close contacts of people diagnosed with meningococcal disease, such as people living in the same household or significant others, are often treated with antibiotics preventively so that they don’t develop the disease. It is important that treatment start as soon as possible.

How to Prevent Meningococcal Disease

Vaccination is the best way to prevent meningococcal disease because once a person is infected, the disease often progresses rapidly to death or serious disability. Therefore, preventing meningococcal disease through vaccination is the most effective approach to avoiding the serious disease. Even early treatment may be ineffective due to the aggressive nature of the bacteria that causes meningococcal disease. See here for more vaccine information.

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