The Travel Health and Vaccine Specialists

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Meningococcal Disease (Neisseria meningitidis)

What is meningococcal disease?
Meningococcal disease can refer to any illness that is caused by the type of bacteria called Neisseria meningitidis. Meningococcal disease is a contagious infection spread by close contact with an infected person, such as living together or kissing. Quick medical attention is extremely important if meningococcal disease is suspected.

The symptoms of meningococcal disease can vary based on the type of illness that develops. Common symptoms of meningococcal meningitis include sudden fever, headache, and stiff neck. Other symptoms can include nausea, vomiting, increased sensitivity to light, and confusion. Children and infants may show different signs, such as inactivity, irritability, vomiting, or poor reflexes. Meningococcal disease can also cause an infection of the blood which can lead to tiredness, vomiting, cold hands and feet, chills, severe aches and pain, fast breathing, diarrhea, and a dark purple rash. Meningococcal disease is very serious and can be fatal. In fatal cases, deaths can occur in as little as a few hours.

Who is at risk?
Anyone can get meningococcal disease, but certain groups of people are at increased risk. Although meningococcal disease is found worldwide, the “meningitis belt” of sub-Saharan Africa Adobe PDF file has the highest rates in the world. Rates of meningococcal disease are several times higher in the meningitis belt than in the US. The disease is most common in these countries during the dry season (December through June). Travelers who spend a lot of time with local populations in the meningitis belt during a large outbreak have the highest risk of contracting the disease.

In addition to the meningitis belt, travelers to the Hajj pilgrimage in Saudi Arabia are also at risk. The Hajj has been associated with outbreaks of meningococcal disease in returning pilgrims and people in close contact with them.

What can travelers do to prevent meningococcal disease?
Get a meningococcal vaccine:

  • A dose of meningitis vaccine is recommended for people traveling to countries in the “meningitis belt” (see map Adobe PDF file) during the dry season (December through June).
  • Even if you have received this vaccine in the past, you may need a booster dose, usually every 5 years.
  • Travelers to the Hajj must show proof of vaccination in the past 3 years.
  • Infants and young children will need more than one dose of vaccine.
    • Infants who received MenHibRix® and are travelling to areas with high endemic rates of meningococcal disease are not protected against serogroups A and W and should receive 1 or 2 doses of a quadrivalent meningococcal vaccine licensed for children aged ≥9 months before travel.
  • It takes approximately 7-10 days after receiving the vaccine before a person can develop protection against the disease.
  • See Vaccine Information Statements (VIS) for more information.

Reduce your exposure to germs:

  • Wash your hands often.
  • If soap and water aren’t available, clean your hands with hand sanitizer (containing at least 60% alcohol).
  • Don’t touch your eyes, nose, or mouth. If you need to touch your face, make sure your hands are clean.
  • Cover your mouth and nose with a tissue or your sleeve (not your hands) when coughing or sneezing.
  • Try to avoid contact with people who are sick.