Meningococcal disease is a sudden illness caused by a bacterium called Neisseria meningitidis. This bacterium infects the bloodstream (meningococcemia) or the meninges, a thin lining covering the brain and spinal cord (meningococcal meningitis).
N. meningitidis is carried in the nose and throat of many healthy adults and children. Though these individuals may not exhibit symptoms or illness, they can spread the infection to others.
This organism is spread by direct contact with nasal or throat secretions of a carrier or ill person. Transmission can occur by sharing saliva via eating utensils, glassware, cigarettes, toothbrushes or kisses, and when people sleep near each other or share a household.
Although most people exposed to the meningococcal bacteria do not become ill, others can develop fever, cough, runny nose, intense headache, stiff neck, and unusual skin lesions. There may be a fine spotty pink rash that progresses to dark patches. Some people develop infections of the blood or brain, which can be fatal. Even with treatment, about 10 percent of severe cases are fatal. Up to 25 percent of patients who recover have chronic damage to the nervous system.
Symptoms appear two to ten days after exposure.
A person can transmit the disease from the time they are first infected until bacteria are no longer present in discharges from the nose and throat. The contagious period varies according to treatment. A person can be contagious even without any symptoms.
Anyone can get meningococcal disease, but it is more common in children under two years of age. College freshmen and military recruits living in congregate settings also have a higher risk of getting meningococcal disease.
Meningococcal disease is treated with injected or intravenous antibiotics. Oral antibiotics like rifampin are given to reduce the number of meningococcal bacteria in the nose and throat. These antibiotics are also given to close contacts of persons with meningococcal disease.
People who may have had close contact with an infected person should contact their primary healthcare provider about treatment with antibiotics. Close contacts can include household members, intimate contacts, healthcare personnel performing mouth-to-mouth resuscitation, and childcare center playmates. Casual contacts such as classmates or coworkers usually do not require treatment unless they shared beverage containers, cigarettes, kisses, or objects entering the mouth.
There are several vaccines that protect against the types of N.meningitidis most common in the United States. Menactra, Menomune (to be discontinued in 2017), and Menveo provide protection against types A, C, W and Y. MenHibrix provides protection against types C and Y. There are two new vaccines, Bexsero and Trumenba, that have been recently approved for type B. Vaccination is recommended for children and adolescents 11 - 18 years of age, college freshmen and military recruits living in congregate settings, those traveling to parts of Africa where meningococcal disease is common, and those who do not have a spleen or who have complement deficiencies, such as systemic lupus erythematous (SLE)
During the past decade, 10 to 43 cases have been reported in Washington each year.
If you or anyone in your family exhibits severe symptoms of meningococcal disease, contact your primary healthcare provider immediately.
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