Meningococcal Disease

Meningococcal disease refers to infections that are caused by bacteria called Neisseria meningitidis, also known as meningococcus. About 1 out of 10 people have this type of bacteria in the back of their nose and throat with no signs or symptoms of disease; this is called being a carrier.  

Sometimes Neisseria meningitidis bacteria can invade the body causing illnesses which are known as invasive meningococcal disease. These illnesses are often severe and include infections of the lining of the brain and spinal cord (meningitis) and bloodstream infections (meningococcemia).

In Canada, less than 1 person in every 100,000 develops meningococcal disease. Invasive meningococcal disease occurs most commonly in children under 5 years of age, adolescents and young adults; however, anyone can develop the infection.

Meningococcal disease can spread from person to person. The bacteria are spread when the nose and throat secretions from someone who is carrying the bacteria gets into another person’s mouth or nose by:

  • coughing
  • kissing
  • sharing objects that have been in an infected person’s mouth

It can also spread by close contact, like living in the same household or attending the same child care centre as an infected person.

The bacteria are not as contagious as germs that cause the common cold or the flu. It is not spread by casual contact or by simply breathing the air where a person with meningococcal disease has been.

The symptoms may appear any time between 2 to 10 days after exposure, but usually appear within 3 to 4 days. The symptoms worsen rapidly, sometimes in a matter of hours. In some cases, death may occur within hours of the onset of symptoms.

The symptoms of meningococcal disease come on suddenly and can include:

  • fever
  • headache
  • stiff neck
  • a red, pin point rash
  • nausea and/or vomiting
  • increased sensitivity to light
  • confusion

Babies may appear to be slow, inactive, and/or irritable; they may vomit or feed poorly.

The symptoms worsen rapidly, sometimes in a matter of hours. In some cases, death may occur within hours of the onset of symptoms.

If you think you or your child has symptoms that could be meningococcal disease, seek medical care right away. Meningococcal disease is very serious. Among people who get ill, between 8% and 15% die and among those who survive, 10% to 20% can develop complications. Complications can include hearing loss, skin scarring and intellectual disability.

Early diagnosis and treatment are very important. Meningococcal disease can be treated with antibiotics, but quick medical attention is extremely important.

If you have been in close contact with someone who is sick with meningococcal disease, you are usually advised to take antibiotics and may also be offered a vaccination. Close contacts include people who live in the same household, have sexual contact or exchange saliva with the sick person, as well as those in the same child care centre. All contacts should be asked to watch for early signs of illness, including fever, and seek treatment promptly.

Casual contact that might occur in a school classroom, office or work setting is not usually significant enough to warrant antibiotics. It is still important for casual contacts to monitor for any symptoms and seek medical care should they develop symptoms that could be meningococcal disease.

Here are some things that can help prevent meningococcal disease:

  • Keeping up to date with recommended immunizations is the best way to prevent meningococcal disease
  • Maintaining healthy habits, like getting plenty of rest and not coming into close contact with people who are sick

In Ontario, publically funded vaccines which protect against some of the various serogroups (strains) that cause meningococcal disease include:

Starting in the 2014/15 school year, Grade 7 students need to have proof of immunization with meningococcal vaccine, or a valid exemption, to attend school in Ontario.

More information on Ontario’s meningococcal immunization program is available at Ontario.ca/vaccines