What is Meningococcal Disease?

Meningococcal disease is a bacterial infection that can cause very serious illnesses. The infection is caused by a bacteria called Neisseria meningitidis. These bacteria live in the nose and throat of some people without causing any sickness. These people are known as being “carriers.”

In some people, the bacteria will invade the body and cause illness. These illnesses are called meningococcal disease. People spread these bacteria to others through respiratory fluids, like saliva and spit. It usually takes very close contact to spread, through coughing or kissing for example, or through contact for a long period of time.

These bacteria are not as contagious as other illnesses, like the common cold. They also don’t typically spread through the air from breathing or talking or through casual contact.

What are the symptoms and complications of meningococcal disease?

There are two most common types of meningococcal infections: meningitis (inflammation of the brain and spinal cord) and septicemia (blood poisoning.) Both of these infections are very serious and can lead to death if not treated quickly.

Symptoms of Meningococcal Meningitis:

  • Fever
  • Headache
  • Stiff neck
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Eyes become sensitive to light (photophobia)
  • Confusion or altered mental state

Newborns and babies may not show these symptoms. Instead, they may be inactive, irritable, vomiting, feeding poorly or have a soft spot in the front of the skull.

Symptoms of Meningococcal Septicemia (Meningococcemia):

  • Fever and chills
  • Fatigue
  • Vomiting or diarrhea
  • Cold hands and feet
  • Severe aches or pains in muscles, joints, chest or belly
  • Rapid breathing
  • Dark purple rash (later stages)

Antibodies are used to treat meningococcal disease. Because it’s a very serious disease and can be fatal, it’s important to start treatment as soon as possible.

Even with antibiotic treatment, 10 to 15 percent of people with meningococcal disease will die. One in five survivors are at risk of developing long-term disabilities like losing a limb, brain damage, nervous system problems or loss of hearing.

What vaccines are available for meningococcal disease?

There are two types of meningococcal vaccines available in the United States.

  • Meningococcal conjugate (MenACWY) vaccines
  • Serogroup B meningococcal (MenB) vaccines

These vaccines provide protection against all three serogroups (bacteria groups) of Neisseria meningitidis bacteria. These are groups B, C and Y.

Who should get the meningococcal vaccine?

The CDC recommends meningococcal vaccination for all preteens and teens.

  • All children should get a MenACWY vaccine between 11 and 12 years of age, with a booster shot at 16 years of age.
  • Teens may also get a MenB vaccine, preferably between 16 and 18 years of age.

Any teen may choose to get a MenB vaccine if they want, but some preteens and teens should get the MenB vaccine. This includes:

  • Those who have a rare type of immune disorder called complement component deficiency.
  • Those taking a complement inhibitor medicine.
  • Those who have a damaged spleen or sickle cell disease; or if they’re spleen has been removed.
  • Those part of a population identified as being at increased risk because of a serogroup B meningococcal disease outbreak.

Talk to your child’s doctor about the best strategy for vaccination.

Is the meningococcal vaccine safe for my child?

The meningococcal vaccine is safe and effective. Because meningococcal disease can become very serious very quickly, prevention is important. The vaccine is the best way to protect your child against meningococcal disease.

Most people do not experience side effects from the vaccine, but mild side effects can occur. These include:

  • Redness or swelling at the injection site
  • Headache
  • Fever
  • Fatigue