Meningococcal disease, commonly referred to as meningitis, is a rare but sometimes deadly bacterial infection. The disease strikes quickly and can lead to hearing loss, brain damage, kidney damage, or limb loss. Individuals who get meningitis may live with permanent disabilities or die.
Who is at risk?
Anyone can get meningococcal meningitis, but some people have a higher risk for the disease. These include:
- Adolescents and young adults
- Infants less than 1 year old
- People living in crowded settings like college dorms or military barracks
- Those with lupus, an autoimmune disease, or a spleen that doesn’t function properly
- People traveling to certain areas outside the United States, such as parts of Africa
- Laboratory workers who are often exposed to meningococcal bacteria
- Those who might have been exposed to meningitis during an outbreak
How is meningococcal meningitis spread?
Meningococcal meningitis is spread through close contact such as kissing or if someone with the disease coughs on you. Although meningitis is very dangerous, the bacteria cannot live outside the body for very long. This means the infection is not as easily spread as a cold.
Some people are “carriers” of the disease without showing any signs or symptoms. These people can transmit the disease to others.
What are the symptoms?
During its early stages, meningococcal meningitis may be misdiagnosed as the flu. Symptoms may include sudden high fever, headache, nausea, vomiting, and feeling tired. Worrisome signs include a purplish rash, pain when looking at bright lights, and a stiff neck. Since symptoms progress quickly, it is very important that one gets to the doctor immediately.
Getting vaccinated and not coming into close contact with people who may have the disease may help prevent meningitis.
Can meningitis be prevented?
Yes. There are meningococcal vaccines that can help prevent the disease.
One type of vaccine (MenACWY) helps protect against disease caused by 4 of the 5 major strains of meningococcal bacteria. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends this vaccine to adolescents at age 11-12 with a booster at age 16.
The CDC also recommends another type of meningococcal vaccine (MenB vaccine) at ages 16-23 years, with a preferred age of 16 to 18 years. Older adolescents and young adults can decide, with their doctors, to be vaccinated against the fifth strain.
For more information about meningitis, talk with your doctor.
What is the National Meningitis Association?
The National Meningitis Association (NMA) is a nonprofit organization founded by parents of children who have died or live with long-term effects from meningococcal disease. NMA’s mission is to educate families, medical professionals, and others about meningococcal disease and prevention approaches to the disease.
For more information about NMA and the organization’s activities, or to contact a member of NMA, please call 1-866-FONE-NMA (1-866-366-3662) or visit www.nmaus.org.