What is meningococcal disease?
Meningococcal disease is an infection caused by the bacteria Neisseria meningitidis. It is the most common cause of bacterial meningitis. Meningitis is an infection of the lining of the brain and spinal cord. The most serious form of meningococcal disease is meningococcemia, an infection of the blood with meningococcal bacteria.
About 10% of the general population carries meningococcal bacteria in their nose and throat, where it is harmless. Most of these people will never become ill, and the bacteria will disappear spontaneously. A very small percentage (less than 1%) of these people will develop the disease.
Meningococcal disease is rare, with outbreaks tending to occur in winter and early spring. It can cause grave illness and rapidly progress to death, as quickly as 12 to 24 hours after exposure. It requires early diagnosis and treatment in a hospital. Individuals, such as friends, relatives, spouses, and children, who have had intimate contact with someone who has been diagnosed with meningococcal meningitis should seek medical attention so that they may start antibiotics to prevent them from becoming ill.
Meningococcal bacteria cannot live for more than a few minutes outside of the body. Therefore, it is not easily transmitted in water supplies, swimming pools, or by routine contact with an infected person in a classroom, dining room, bar, or rest room. Meningococcal bacteria is spread through close personal contact such as:
- Kissing on the lips
- Sharing drinking utensils (cup, bottle, glass, can, jug)
- Sneezing or coughing on someone
- Sharing the mouthpiece on a musical instrument
- Sharing eating utensils, lipstick, or Chap stick
- Sharing cigarettes, cigars, or pipes
Signs and symptoms
Many of the signs and symptoms of meningococcal disease are common to everyday self-limiting illnesses. However, with meningococcemia and meningoccal meningitis, the illness becomes progressively worse very quickly. Early signs and symptoms may include:
- Fever, usually greater than 101° F
- Severe headache
- Stiff neck
- Drowsiness, lack of energy, confusion, or irritability
- Rash that starts as tiny red or purple spots under the skin that spread and become larger as the illness progresses
When to seek medical help
Meningococcal disease can easily be mistaken for the flu. However, serious, and even deadly illness can occur within a few hours. If fever, severe headache, vomiting, and stiff neck are present, seek medical assistance immediately. Death may occur in 10 to 15% of meningococcal meningitis cases, and up to 30% in meningococcemia. For survivors, blindness, hearing loss, speech loss, brain damage, learning disabilities, limb amputation, and kidney failure may occur.
Who is at risk?
Anyone can contract meningococcal disease, although it is a relatively rare infection. In particular, infants and the elderly are at higher risk. In recent years, though, an increase has been noted in college students; and among undergraduate students, freshman living in residence halls have the highest rate which is six times greater than students in general.
It is believed that certain lifestyle factors, such as living in confined areas like residence halls, exposure to tobacco smoke, patronizing bars, and drinking heavily, contribute to this increased rate of occurrence. In addition, anyone who has recently had a known, close exposure with someone diagnosed with meningococcal disease, is at increased risk.
Menomune is the vaccination for meningococcal disease. It is effective against four of the most common strains of the infection. It is about 85 to 100% effective against serogroups A and C. The American College Health Association, Center for Disease Control, and the American Academy of Pediatrics recommend that matriculating college students and their families be informed about the potential risks and availability of a vaccine.
Pennsylvania law requires all students residing in a college/university-owned residence hall or housing unit either have the vaccine or sign a declination statement after having received information concerning the benefits of receiving the meningitis vaccine. Menomune is available in Student Health Services for a fee of $90. Many insurance plans are now covering the cost of the vaccine.