Meningococcal Disease

Meningitis is an inflammation of the meninges, the tissue that surrounds the brain and spinal cord. The most common types of meningitis are bacterial and viral. Meningococcal meningitis is the bacterial form of meningitis. Its main cause is the bacteria Neisseria meningitides. Meningococcal Disease is life threatening and requires immediate medical attention.

What are the symptoms of Meningococcal Disease?

Meningococcal Disease generally occurs within 14 days after exposure to meningococcal bacteria.

The most common symptoms of meningococcal meningitis are a sudden onset of a stiff neck, headache, and high fever. Other symptoms include sensitivity to light, confusion, and vomiting. About two-thirds of people with Meningococcal Disease also develop a bruise-like rash on their bodies.

How can I get Meningococcal Disease?

Most people that spread meningitis bacteria are not sick. At any given time up to 20 percent of people have N. meningitidesin their noses and throats, sometimes for several months, with few or no symptoms.

When people sneeze, cough, kiss, or share eating and drinking utensils, they can spread meningitis bacteria in droplets of saliva or secretions from their nose or throat. However, meningitis is not as contagious as the common cold or the flu, and it is not spread by casual contact. The bacteria that cause meningitis only survive outside the human body for a few minutes.

N. meningitides is found worldwide. However, you may be at increased risk of developing Meningococcal Disease if you travel to places where it is epidemic such sub-Saharan Africa. Incidence is highest in poor and overcrowded areas.

Infants and people who have HIV infection or have had their spleen removed also face higher than average risks of contracting Meningococcal Disease. In the Northern Hemisphere, young adults who live in close quarters such as college dorms, or who have close personal contact with others such as kissing and sharing food, drinks, water bottles, cosmetics, and cigarettes, can also face increased risks.

Where can I get Meningococcal Disease?

N. meningitides is found worldwide. The bacteria are present in the nasal passages of 5–10 percent of people. There are 13 different types of N. meningitides, but types A, B, C, Y and W135 areresponsible for most epidemics.

Epidemics of type A occur every year in Africa, usually in the African meningitis belt during the December to June dry season. Other countries, including China and Brazil, have also reported epidemics.

Crowded conditions create the potential for epidemics. The annual Hajj pilgrimage to Mecca in Saudi Arabia, for example, has reported Meningococcal Disease outbreaks. To prevent future epidemics, Saudi Arabia requires all Hajj and Umrah pilgrims to be vaccinated before entering the country.

In North America, meningitis is most common among children up to age four and among adolescents and young adults from ages 15 to 24. Subgroups B and C cause most outbreaks in Canada. The Y subgroup is estimated to cause about 30 percent of Meningococcal Disease in the United States, but it is relatively rare in Canada.

What vaccines are available for Meningococcal Disease?

There are several vaccines available for Meningococcal Disease in Canada, covering the  C strain, ACYW135 strains and the B strain.

In BC, beginning at two months of age, children receive meningococcal vaccine to protect against infection caused by type C, one of the most common types of meningococcal bacteria in Canada.

Individuals at increased risk for other types of bacterial meningitis include:

  • Travellers to sub-Saharan Africa, Mecca, or other destinations recognized as having epidemics.
  • College students.
  • Health care workers who may be exposed to N. meningitis.

People in these categories should receive a quadrivalent vaccine to protect them against Meningococcal Disease. Consult a travel health specialist to find out if this vaccine is appropriate for you.

How many shots will I need?

Adults require a single dose of MenACWY-135 vaccine approximately two weeks before they travel. Children under age two need two doses for adequate protection.

Will I need a booster?

A booster may be recommended for you, depending on your age, health, vaccination status, and continued risk level for contracting Meningococcal Disease.

How can I prevent Meningococcal Disease?

Vaccination is the single best way to prevent Meningococcal Disease.

If you are travelling in an area where Meningococcal Disease is endemic, you should:

  • Avoid crowded areas like public markets.
  • Avoid close physical contact with locals who may not be vaccinated.
  • Avoid sharing cups, water bottles, cigarettes, food, and utensils.
  • Wash or sanitize your hands if you come into contact with an object that could be contaminated with nasal secretions.

Some viruses and other bacteria can also cause meningitis, although other forms of bacterial meningitis are very rare. Being vaccinated against N. meningitides does not protect you against all sources of meningitis.

What is the treatment for Meningococcal Disease?

Meningococcal Disease is extremely serious and requires immediate hospitalization and antibiotics. If left untreated, it has a mortality rate approaching 100 percent, and it often kills within two days. Up to 15 percent of those who receive treatment will die. Of those who recover, up to 15 percent will be left with serious after effects including hearing loss, brain damage, seizures, gangrene, amputations, and kidney damage or failure. Bacterial meningitis can also cause a serious blood infection called septicemia.