What is meningococcal disease (meningitis)?

Meningococcal disease is a sudden illness caused by a bacterium called Neisseria meningitidis. This bacterium infects the bloodstream or a thin lining covering the brain and spinal cord (meningococcal meningitis).

Where does it come from?

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 bacteria to others.

How is it spread?

It is spread by direct contact with nasal or throat secretions (saliva or spit) 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.

What are the symptoms?

Although most people exposed to the meningococcal bacteria do not become ill, others can develop fever, cough, runny nose, intense headache, and stiff neck. 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.

How soon do symptoms appear?

People who are exposed generally become ill within three to four days (occasionally up to 10 days).

How long is an infected person contagious?

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.

Who is at risk for illness?

Meningococcal disease is a rare infection. It is more often seen in children under 2 years of age. College freshmen and military recruits living in congregate settings also have a higher risk of getting meningococcal disease.

What is the treatment?

Meningococcal disease is treated with injected or intravenous antibiotics. Oral antibiotics 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.

Who should be treated?

People who may have had close contact with an infected person should contact their primary healthcare provider about preventative 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 preventative treatment unless they shared beverage containers, cigarettes, kisses, or objects entering the mouth.

Is there a vaccine available?

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends vaccination with a meningococcal conjugate vaccine for all preteens and teens at 11 to 12 years old, with a booster dose at 16 years old. Teens and young adults (16 through 23 years old) also may be vaccinated with a serogroup B meningococcal vaccine.

How common is meningococcal disease in Washington?

During the past decade, 10 to 43 cases have been reported in Washington each year.

What should I do if I suspect someone in my family has meningococcal disease?

If you or anyone in your family exhibits severe symptoms of meningococcal disease, contact your primary healthcare provider immediately.

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