Meningococcal Disease

Neisseria meningitidis (meningococcus) bacteria spread from person to person and can cause bacterial meningitis. These infections affect people of all ages, but infants, adolescents, and young adults are especially at risk. Even with appropriate treatment, meningococcal disease can be fatal or result in permanent disability.

Meningococcus bacteria are spread through the exchange of respiratory and throat secretions like spit (e.g., by living in close quarters, kissing). Meningococcal disease can be treated with antibiotics, but quick medical attention is extremely important.

Clinical Presentation

The most common clinical presentation of meningococcal infection is acute meningitis, characterized by sudden onset of high fever, intense headache, and stiff neck. There are often additional symptoms, such as:

  • Nausea
  • Vomiting
  • Photophobia (increased sensitivity to light)
  • Altered mental status (confusion)

These symptoms can develop within several hours or may develop 3 ­to 7 days after exposure.

Another outcome of meningococcal infection is septicemia (an infection of the bloodstream). Patients who present with meningococcal septicemia could have many symptoms, including:

  • High fever
  • Fatigue
  • Vomiting or diarrhea
  • Cold hands and feet
  • Cold chills
  • Severe aches or pain in the muscles, joints, chest, or abdomen (belly)
  • Rapid breathing
  • Purpuric rash (bleeding underneath the skin)

Meningococcal septicemia is associated with an increased risk of death, with up to 2 out of every 5 patients dying from the infection.

Diagnosis

Meningococcal disease is usually diagnosed by analyzing a sample of blood or cerebrospinal fluid (CSF) obtained through lumbar puncture—a technique that involves inserting a needle into the lower spine.

Treatment

Given that meningococcal disease can be fatal, immediate medical intervention is recommended for diagnosis and treatment. Treatment should include a combination of antibiotic therapy and supportive treatment such as fluid and electrolyte balance as well as other interventions according to the severity of the symptoms.

Morbidity and Mortality

Without antibiotics, more than half of those who become sick with meningitis will die. Even with appropriate care:

  • Approximately 1 to 2 out of every 20 patients die from the infection, typically within 24 to 48 hours of symptom onset.
  • Approximately 11 to 19 out of 100 survivors are left with long-term disabilities such as loss of limb(s), deafness, nervous system problems, or brain damage