About meningococcal meningitis

Meningitis is an infection of the lining around the brain and spinal cord that can be caused by different kinds of organisms, including bacteria and viruses. When caused by bacteria, meningitis is a very serious infection and requires treatment with antibiotics. Meningococcal meningitis is one form of bacterial meningitis caused by a bacterium named Neisseria meningitidis or “meningococcus.” Like any bacterial meningitis, rapid diagnosis and treatment are important because meningococcal meningitis can be fatal if not treated promptly.

Meningococcus infection does not always cause meningitis—as many as five to 10 percent of community members carry this bacterium in their nose or throat, but less than one percent of these carriers become ill. People who become ill may get meningitis infection in the brain (encephalitis), blood bacteremia or septicemia), joints (arthritis), or lungs (pneumonia).

Meningitis can occur anytime of the year but tends to be more common in fall and winter. Oregon has a higher rate of meningococcal disease than most states but even here, it is still uncommon. Currently, about 30-60 cases occur each year in Oregon—about one to two cases for every 100,000 Oregonians.

Symptoms and treatment

The main symptoms of meningococcal meningitis are:

  • Fever
  • Headache
  • Rapidly developing rash - The rash is often purple in color and appears first on the armpits, groin, ankles, and areas where pressure is applied (for example underwear elastic waistbands and socks).

Other symptoms include:

  • Stiff neck
  • Confusion
  • Seizures

Symptoms may appear two to 10 days after exposure, but usually within five days.

Penicillin and certain related antibiotics are very effective in treating meningitis. With appropriate treatment, most patients recover without any problem.

How it is spread

Meningococcus is only spread by close contact with saliva or secretions from the nose or throat of an infected person. Meningococcus is not transmitted by breathing the same air as an infected person. Infected people can spread meningococcal bacteria until they have been eliminated from the nose or throat by preventive antibiotic treatment. This is usually within a week or two.

Anyone can get meningococcal disease, but it is more common in infants and children. Until meningococcal bacteria are gone from the nose or throat, they may be transmitted to another person. The duration varies according to treatment used.

Preventing the spread of meningitis

Preventive treatment can lower the risk of illness if given within 14 days of exposure. Only people in very close contact with someone who is sick with meningococcal disease should be considered for preventive treatment. These include:

  • Household members
  • Intimate and kissing contacts
  • Day-care center classmates
  • Some health-care workers
  • People with direct contact to nose or throat secretions of someone sick with meningococcal disease

Only three antibiotics work to prevent meningococcal disease (rifampin, ciprofloxacin, or ceftriaxone).

There is a vaccine for meningococcal meningitis, but it only protects against some of the most common strains of meningococcus. The vaccine may be recommended during outbreaks or for travel to areas where high rates of disease occur. Unfortunately, the vaccine is not effective against the types of meningococcal germs most common in Oregon(and the rest of the United States).

Ways to reduce the risk of developing meningitis

  • Quit smoking and avoid second hand smoke (exposure to tobacco smoke increases the risk)
  • Avoid upper respiratory infections (for example, receiving influenza vaccine when appropriate)
  • Cover your mouth when coughing or sneezing
  • Frequent hand washing

Maintain a healthful lifestyle: Eat a balanced diet, avoid excessive alcohol, get plenty of sleep and rest, and manage stress