Neisseria meningitidis

What is Meningococcal Disease?

Meningococcal (muh-nin-jo-cok-ul) disease is a serious bacterial illness that can lead to severe swelling of the tissues surrounding the brain and spinal cord (meningitis) or infection of the bloodstream (meningococcal septicemia or meningococcemia). Pneumonia (lung infection) also occurs but is less common.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), meningococcal bacteria spread through the exchange of respiratory and throat secretions like saliva or spit (e.g., by coughing, living in close quarters, kissing).

Burden

Anyone can get meningococcal disease, but certain people are at increased risk, including:

  • Infants younger than 1 year old
  • Teens (adolescents) and young adults age 16-23 years old
  • College students
  • People with certain medical conditions that affect the immune system such as HIV
  • Microbiologists who routinely work with isolates of Neisseria meningitidis, the bacteria that cause
    meningococcal disease
  • People at risk because of an outbreak in their community
  • Individuals traveling to a country where meningococcal disease is epidemic or highly endemic
  • Military recruits

Even with treatment, about 15 out of 100 people with meningococcal disease will die from it. Of those who survive, 10-20% will suffer serious and permanent complications including brain damage, kidney damage, hearing loss, and amputation of arms, legs, fingers, or toes.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has information about recent meningococcal outbreaks.

Symptoms

Early meningococcal disease symptoms are often similar to influenza (flu) which can cause a delay in
diagnosis and treatment. Symptoms usually progress very quickly and may include a combination of the following:

  • Fever
  • Headache
  • Stiff neck
  • Confusion
  • Nausea, vomiting
  • Exhaustion
  • Purplish rash

Death can happen in as little as 24-48 hours. People who experience these symptoms, especially if they are unusually sudden, progressive, or severe, should be examined as soon as possible by a healthcare professional.

Prevention

Keeping up to date with recommended vaccines is the best way to protect against meningococcal disease. Three types of meningococcal vaccines are available in the US (MenACWY, MenB, MenABCWY).

CDC recommends routine MenACWY for:

  • All preteens at age 11-12 years
  • All teens at age 16 years (booster dose)
  • Children and adults at increased risk for meningococcal disease

CDC recommends routine MenB vaccine:

  • Individuals age 10 years and older at increased risk for meningococcal disease

Teens and young adults (age 16-23 years) also may get a MenB vaccine.

CDC recommends the new combination MenABCWY vaccination as an option for:

  • Individuals age 10 years and older who need MenACWY and MenB at the same visit

Talk to a healthcare professional if your teen missed getting MenACWY or if you are interested in MenB vaccination.

CDC recommends meningococcal vaccines for adults if they are at increased risk. This includes:

  • Certain medical conditions (talk to your healthcare professional for the appropriate schedule)
  • International travelers to areas where meningococcal disease is endemic
  • Scientists (and others) whose jobs involve working with meningococcal bacteria
  • College students
  • Military personnel
  • Increased risk due to a meningococcal disease outbreak

Treatment

Meningococcal disease can be treated with antibiotics, but quick medical attention is extremely important to help reduce the risk of dying. Depending on how serious the infection is, people with meningococcal disease may need other treatments, including:

  • Breathing support
  • Low blood pressure medications
  • Surgery to remove dead tissue, caused by septicemia
  • Wound care for skin damage caused by septicemia

Even with treatment, more than 1 in 10 people infected with meningococcal disease will die. Up to 1 in 5 survivors will have long-term disabilities, such as loss of limb(s), deafness, nervous system problems, or brain damage.

 

Reviewed December 2023

Source: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

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