What is meningococcal disease?

Meningitis is an inflammation of the meninges, the tissues that cover the brain (hence the name). The inflammation is often due to an infection. The infection may be due to a virus, a bacteria, or other agents. If the infection is from a bacteria called meningococcus, the disease is called meningococcal meningitis.

What is meningococcal disease?

There are a number of types of the meningococcus bacteria, and all can cause severe illness. Most people who come in contact with the bacteria do not have symptoms and do not become sick. Sometimes this bacteria can overcome the body's defences and cause illness. For some people (especially adolescents and young adults, children, and those with certain medical problems), meningococcus can cause:

  • meningococcal meningitis, an infection that affects the spinal fluid and the lining around the brain
  • meningococcemia or meningococcal septicemia, an infection of the blood
  • other diseases such as pneumonia

Antibiotics are successful 9 out of 10 times when treating this infection. However, people may have a permanent disability such as hearing loss, paralysis or the loss of part or all of a limb. The infection can cause death. Meningococcal disease is not new. There are cases of meningococcal infection in Canada and the rest of the world every year.

How is meningococcal disease spread?

Some people carry the meningococcal bacteria in their nose and throat. They can pass it to others by contact with the droplets from their nose or mouth. To catch the infection, you must have very close contact with someone infected with the meningococcal bacteria. It does not spread as easily as other infections, such as the common cold or flu.

What are the symptoms of meningococcal disease?

Symptoms of meningococcal infection may include:

  • fever
  • headache
  • nausea and sometimes vomiting
  • weakness and drowsiness
  • stiff neck or joint pain
  • eye discomfort when looking at bright lights
  • reddish-purple, tiny spots, or a bruise-like skin rash (in combination with other symptoms, this is cause for serious concern)

Young children may also be sleepy, irritable, or cry excessively. In winter, other viruses cause some of these same symptoms. Meningococcal infections are usually more severe than these other viruses, and may get worse quickly. If you have these symptoms, see your doctor, health clinic, or closest emergency room immediately.

How can meningococcal infection be prevented?

When a case of meningococcal infection is reported, public health officials will attempt to notify people who have been in contact with the nasal or mouth secretions of the infected person. They will be offered a special antibiotic to prevent them from becoming ill. Even though the antibiotic is very good at preventing disease, it is very important to contact your doctor if you become ill after contact with a case of meningococcal infection. You may reduce the spread of this germ if you:

  • wash your hands frequently
  • keep your hands away from your mouth and nose
  • cover your nose and mouth when you sneeze or cough
  • use only your own plates, knives, forks, and glasses
  • avoid sharing things like cigarettes, water bottles, lip gloss, glasses, or cups
  • reduce casual kissing

Is there a vaccine to protect against meningococcal disease?

There are several vaccines that protect against some strains of meningococcal infection. They are used for people age 2 and over. The following people (over age 2) are at an increased risk of infection or of having a more severe meningococcal infection, and should get the vaccine:

  • people without a spleen or with a spleen that is not working properly due to disease
  • some people who work with the meningococcal bacteria in laboratories
  • people who are living in, or traveling overseas to, countries at high risk for meningococcal disease

Sometimes, immunization may be recommended if there is an increase in the number of cases of disease in certain age groups or communities.

Manitoba Health 
in association with the MediResource Clinical Team