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Meningococcal Meningitis

What is meningococcal meningitis (spinal meningitis, cerebrospinal fever, meningococcemia)?

Meningococcal meningitis is a severe bacterial infection of the meninges (a thin lining covering the brain and spinal cord) caused by the bacteria called Neisseria meningitidis. Meningococcemia is the term for infections involving the bloodstream. The infection can also occur as pneumonia (an infection of the lungs) or in joints, such as the knees.

Who gets meningococcal meningitis?

Anyone can get meningococcal meningitis. Infants < 12 months of age have the highest rates of disease. Clusters of cases and outbreaks do occur but are rare in the United States.

How is meningococcal meningitis spread?

The meningococcus bacteria is spread by direct close contact with nose or throat discharges of an infected person. About eight percent of healthy people carry this particular bacteria in their nose and throat without any signs of illness. Generally, it takes close (for example, coughing or kissing) or lengthy contact to spread these bacteria. Fortunately, they are not as contagious as germs that cause the common cold or the flu. People do not catch the bacteria through casual contact or by breathing air where someone with meningococcal disease has been. Close living quarters, such as in military barracks and dormitories, favor transmission of the organism.

What are the symptoms of meningococcal meningitis?

Although most people exposed to the meningococcus bacteria do not become seriously ill, some may develop fever, headache, vomiting, stiff neck and a rash. Sometimes the disease can be fatal.

How soon after infection do symptoms appear?

The symptoms may occur one to 10 days after exposure, but usually within three to four days.

When and for how long is an infected person able to spread the disease?

An infected person may be contagious from the time he or she is first infected until the germ is no longer present in discharges from the nose and throat.

How is meningococcal meningitis diagnosed?

Meningococcal meningitis is usually diagnosed in an ill person by laboratory identification of the bacteria from either the blood or spinal fluid.

What is the treatment for meningococcal meningitis?

Several antibiotics are very effective in eliminating the bacteria from the nose and throat. Penicillin is still effective against the meningococcal organism and remains the recommended treatment.

Should people who have been in contact with a diagnosed case of meningococcal meningitis receive preventive treatment?

Only people who have been in prolonged close contact (household members, intimate contacts, health care personnel performing mouth-to-mouth resuscitation, day care center playmates, etc.) need to be considered for preventive treatment. Such people are usually advised to obtain a prescription for an antibiotic (either rifampin or ciprofloxacin) from their physician. Casual contact, as might occur in a regular classroom, office, factory or other work setting is not usually sufficient enough to cause concern.

Is there a vaccine to prevent meningococcal meningitis?

There are 2 types of meningococcal vaccines available in the United States:

  • Meningococcal conjugate or MenACWY vaccines (Menactra®, Menveo®, and MenQuadfi®): All 11 to 12 year olds should get a MenACWY vaccine, with a booster dose at 16 years old.
  • Serogroup B meningococcal or MenB vaccines (Bexsero®and Trumenba®): Teens and young adults (16 through 23 years old) also may get a MenB vaccine.

The CDC also recommends meningococcal vaccination for other children and adults who are at increased risk for meningococcal disease.

Is meningococcal vaccine required for school entry or for summer camp?

No. However, a recent change to New York State public health law now requires that colleges, universities, boarding schools, and children's overnight camps inform students or their parents or guardians about meningococcal meningitis (also called meningococcal disease). More information can be obtained from:

The law requires that the following information be provided:

  • A description of meningococcal disease and its transmission,
  • The benefits, risks and effectiveness of immunization, and
  • The availability and estimated cost of immunization (and whether or not the camp itself offers the vaccine).

The law does not require that a person receive meningococcal vaccination.

For more information on meningococcal meningitis, call 311