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What is Meningococcal Disease?

Meningococcal diseases are infections caused by a bacteria called meningococcus. Meningitis is an inflammation of the meninges (membranes covering the brain).

The disease kills in about 10 percent of individuals infected. It does serious harm, including brain damage, in another 10 percent. A viral form of meningitis exists but is generally less serious.

Severe cases, especially those untreated or treated too late, can cause deafness, paralysis, and mental retardation.

Meningitis affects about 3,000 people in the United States each year, and the number of cases in those ages 15 to 24 has nearly doubled in the last 10 years

What Causes Meningitis?

Meningococcal diseases are caused by meningococcal bacteria. Meningococcal bacteria are around us all the time. Healthy people may have the bacteria in their nose or throat. Usually this does not cause disease. In some rare cases, the bacteria can get into the blood or brain, and cause serious illness.

How Do You Get Meningitis?

Meningococcal bacteria is carried in saliva or droplets from the nose of an infected person. Sneezing, coughing, kissing, or sharing cigarettes, food, drinks, or other things that contain saliva can all help to pass the bacteria from one person to another. From the time the bacteria gets, into a person's mouth or nose, it may take from two to ten days for the person to become sick. The average time is three to four days.

Who Can Get Meningitis?

Anyone can get the bacteria that causes meningococcal disease. However, only a few people who carry the bacteria will actually get sick. Many people will get the bacteria when they are children and will develop protection by the time they are teenagers. These people will have life-long protection. The bacteria that cause the disease exist everywhere, and many healthy people carry them in their nose or throat for long periods of time. This does not cause them any harm, but they may be able to spread the bacteria to others. It is only rarely that the bacteria causes the serious disease. We know that when people have close contact with an infected person, they are at greater risk. This can happen in a family, daycare, or dormitory setting. Usually there is no increased spread within schools or at recreational or social events. Casual contact such as being in the same classroom or sitting at a table with an infected person does not increase the risk of infection.

What Are the Signs of Meningococcal Disease?

Severe headache, vomiting, and stiff neck are the most common signs of meningococcal disease. High fever and irritability are signs in a very young child. If there is infection in the blood, a purplish skin rash that looks like bruising may also occur. By the time this rash appears the infection is very serious and the person must be treated as soon as possible.

How Can I Prevent Meningitis?

You can help prevent catching the infection by having good basic hygiene. Wash your hands before eating and after coughing and sneezing. Do not share forks, spoons, glasses, cigarettes, lipstick, food, water, sports water bottles, or other items that may contain saliva.

I know someone with Meningococcal Disease: What Should I Do?

If you have a child that has been in close contact with this person, inform public health staff, or your doctor. A health professional will be able to prescribe an antibiotic for your child.

Can I be vaccinated from Meningococcal Disease?

There is no vaccine in general use to prevent this disease. However, there is a vaccine available for some types of meningococcal disease but it does not protect against one of the common types.

Is there a cure for Meningitis?

Yes. Meningococcal disease can be cured with antibiotics.

What Should I Do if I Think Myself or My Child Has Meningococcal Disease?

This disease develops very quickly. If you think that you or your child has meningococcal disease, see your family doctor or go to your local hospital. Do not wait.


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