February 2012

What Is Meningococcal Disease?

Meningococcal disease is an infectious disease caused by the bacteria Neisseria meningitidis. The bacteria are found in the throat and nose in 10 percent of healthy individuals. In rare instances, the bacteria can overcome the body’s natural defenses and cause serious disease. The two serious forms of the disease are an infection of the lining of the brain called “meningococcal meningitis” and a blood infection called “meningococcemia”.

Meningococcal disease is quite rare, with approximately 300 people affected in Canada (8 in Toronto) every year. Meningococcal disease can affect people of any age, although it is most common in teenagers and infants less than one year of age.

How Do You Get Meningococcal Disease?

The disease spreads through saliva by close face-to-face contact, usually by kissing or sharing food, drink, musical instruments, water bottles, cigarettes or other things that have been in the mouth of a person with the disease.

Who Is at Risk of Getting Meningococcal Disease?

Children under the age of five and particularly those under the age of one, are at highest risk, followed by teenagers between 15 and 19 years of age.

Anyone who has been in close direct contact with a person who has meningococcal disease is also at risk, such as:

  • People who live in the same house
  • Anyone who has had direct close contact (e.g., kissing, sharing of food, drink, cigarettes, musical instrument, etc.)
  • Children at the same day nursery or kindergarten class
  • Healthcare workers who have had intensive unprotective contact (e.g., resuscitation, intubation or suctioning)

No special measures need to be taken among the general student population to prevent infection. School classmates or co-workers and healthcare workers who have not been in direct close contact are not at increased risk and do not need preventive antibiotics.

What Are the Symptoms?

People who are sick with this disease may have several of the following symptoms:

  • sudden onset of high fever
  • severe headache
  • stiff neck
  • drowsiness or confusion
  • fever
  • nausea and vomiting
  • rash (purplish)
  • seizures

Infants can have a high pitched cry, an arched back, decreased appetite or difficulty feeding.

How Soon Do the Symptoms Appear?

The symptoms will usually appear within 2 to 10 days after being exposed to the bacteria.

When and for How Long Is a Person Able to Spread Meningococcal Disease?

A person is able to spread meningococcal disease up to 7 days before becoming ill and until 24 hours after starting the appropriate antibiotic.

Can Meningococcal Disease Be Prevented?

Yes. Vaccines are available that provide protection against specific types of meningococcal bacteria. The side effects of the vaccines are usually minor and temporary, including some redness and tenderness at the site of injection or a mild fever. Serious side effects, including allergic reactions, are very uncommon. The vaccines cannot cause meningococcal disease because it contains no live bacteria.

Anyone who has been in direct close contact (e.g., saliva-to-saliva contact) with a person with meningococcal disease, in the period 7 days before the person got sick and up to 24 hours after the person’s treatment was started should receive preventive antibiotics.

For more information about the meningococcal vaccines, speak to your healthcare provider or call Toronto Public Health’s Immunization Information Line: 416-392-1250.

What Should I Do If I Have Been Exposed to Meningococcal Disease?

If you have been exposed to meningococcal disease, call your healthcare provider right away to see if you need antibiotics to prevent you from getting sick and spreading the bacteria. In some cases a vaccine may be used in addition to the preventive antibiotic. If appropriate, Toronto Public Health will make arrangements to have the vaccine provided for those to whom it would be a benefit, at no cost.

If you have any symptoms of the disease within 10 days of last seeing a person with meningococcal disease, see your healthcare provider right away.

Is There Treatment for Meningococcal Disease?

Yes. A person ill with meningococcal disease can be treated with antibiotics and supportive medical care.