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Top 5 things to know about meningococcal disease

September 25, 2018

Parents of college kids, here are the top 5 things you need to know about the dangers of meningitis and related diseases.

  1. What exactly is meningococcal disease?

    Meningococcal disease can refer to any illness caused by the type of bacteria called Neisseria meningitidis that usually presents clinically as meningitis (about 50% of cases), bacteremia (38% of cases), or pneumonia (9% of cases).

    There are five serogroups (types) of Neisseria meningitidis — A, B, C, W, and Y — that cause most disease worldwide. Three of these serogroups (B, C, and Y) cause most of the illness seen in the United States.

  2. How bad can it be?

    Meningococcal disease can be severe and even deadly. They include infections of the lining of the brain and spinal cord (meningitis) and bloodstream infections (bacteremia).

    While the overall case-to-fatality ratio for those with meningococcal disease is between 10-15%, 20% of survivors suffer from long-term conditions such as neurologic disability, limb/digit loss, and hearing loss.

    Doctors treat meningococcal disease with antibiotics, but quick medical attention is extremely important. Keeping up to date with recommended vaccines is the best defense against meningococcal disease. (See #5 for more about vaccines.)

  3. How do people contract meningococcal disease?

    People spread meningococcal bacteria to other people by sharing respiratory and throat secretions (saliva or spit). Generally, it takes close (for example, coughing or kissing) or lengthy contact to spread these bacteria. About 1 in 10 people have these bacteria in the back of their nose and throat with no signs or symptoms of disease; this is called being ‘a carrier’. But sometimes the bacteria invades the body causing meningococcal disease. The good news is that, the bacteria are not as contagious as viruses that cause the common cold or the flu. People do not catch them through casual contact or by breathing air where someone with meningococcal disease has been.

  4. Who is most at risk?

    Age is definitely a risk factor: Anyone can get meningococcal disease, but doctors diagnose higher rates of the disease in children younger than 1 year of age, followed by a second peak in adolescence. Among teens and young adults, those 16-23 years of age have the highest rates of meningococcal disease.

    And of course, we know that infectious diseases tend to spread wherever large groups of people gather. The high concentration of young adults on college campuses makes it no surprise that several colleges have reported outbreaks of serogroup B meningococcal disease during the last several years.

    Certain medical conditions and medications can also put people at increased risk of meningococcal disease. They include not having a spleen, having a complement component deficiency, and being infected with HIV. 

  5. What about vaccines?

    The Centers of Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends vaccinating all 11-18 year olds with a meningococcal conjugate vaccine. Preteens 11 to 12 years old should visit their clinicians to receive 1 dose and other preventive services. Since protection decreases over time, CDC recommends a booster dose at age 16. This allows teens to continue having protection during the ages when they are at highest risk of meningococcal disease.

    Teens and young adults (16-23 year olds) may also be vaccinated with a serogroup B meningococcal vaccine, preferably at 16 through 18 years old. Multiple doses are needed, regardless of the brand chosen, and the same vaccine brand must be used for all doses.

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