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Meningococcal disease is a serious bacterial infection caused by the Neisseria meningitides bacterium. This bacterium is known as a meningococcus.

It causes severe illnesses including meningitis (an infection of the membranes covering the brain) and septicaemia (a serious infection in the blood).

Meningococcal disease and meningitis

Meningococcal disease is a serious disease that can sometimes cause death or permanent disability (such as deafness) or disfigurement. An unrelated type of meningitis, called amoebic meningitis, can occur after putting one’s head under the water at hot pools. Amoebic meningitis is caused by a different organism to meningococcal disease. However, immediate medical treatment is also required for amoebic meningitis to minimize the likelihood of disability and death. There are several different strains of bacteria, which are able to cause meningococcal disease.

Meningitis can appear because of many other bacteria beside Neisseria meningitides. This is just one variant of the meningococcal disease. Meningitis is an infection of the fluid in a person’s spinal cord, and of the fluid surrounding the brain. People sometimes refer to the latter as spinal meningitis, but it is more important to know whether meningitis is caused by a virus or bacterium. This is important because the severity of illness and the treatment differ. Viral meningitis is generally less severe and resolves without specific treatment. On the other hand, bacterial meningitis can be quite severe and may result in brain damage, hearing loss, or learning disability. For bacterial meningitis, it is also important to know which type of bacteria is causing the meningitis. This detail is very important because antibiotics can prevent some types from spreading and infecting others.

What are the symptoms of meningococcal disease and meningitis?

Meningococcal disease is interesting, because at first, it can be hard to tell from other similar illnesses such as influenza, and the illness may quickly worsen, sometimes in a matter of hours. This is why it is important we keep an eye on people who rapidly become ill. Parents or caregivers should consider the possibility that their child may be seriously ill if it has a fever, if it’s crying or unsettled, refuses drink or food, and vomits frequently. Once you notice a child is sleepy, floppy, or harder to wake, dislikes bright lights, or has a rash or spots. you should know there is something wrong.
At the same time, adults may have a fever or a headache, stiff neck, joint pain, or aching muscles. They could also vomit, feel sleepy, confused, delirious, or unconscious, dislike bright lights, or have a rash or spots. All these are signs of meningococcal disease.
In case of meningitis a high fever, headache, and stiff neck are common symptoms in anyone over the age of two. These symptoms can develop over several hours, or they may take one to two days to develop completely. Other symptoms may include nausea, vomiting, discomfort when looking into bright lights, confusion, and sleepiness, while in newborns and small infants, the classic symptoms of fever, headache, and neck stiffness may be absent or difficult to detect. The infant may only appear slow or inactive, or be irritable, vomiting, or feeding poorly. As the disease progresses, patients of any age may have seizures caused by meningitis.

What should someone with suspected meningococcal disease do?

If an adult or child has any of these typical symptoms, it is important to seek medical right away. You must seek medical help whether night or day. Say what the symptoms are and insist on immediate action and help. If a person is cleared by a doctor, they should still be under supervision, and if their condition deteriorates, sent straight back to a doctor. These patients should never be left alone.

Treatment of meningococcal disease

Antibiotics are the best option for meningococcal disease treatment. It is very important that the antibiotic treatment starts early, death, disfigurement, and disability can still occur despite treatment. A patient could receive treatment with a number of effective antibiotics. Appropriate treatment for most common types of bacterial meningitis should reduce the risk of dying from meningitis to below 15%, although the risk is higher among the elderly.
After meningococcal disease treatment, recovery is normally complete, but headaches, tiredness and depression may persist for weeks or even months. Once a person is diagnosed with meningitis, antibiotics should kill off any meningococcal bacteria, which are in the back of the nose and throat. This reduces the risk of passing the bacteria on to others. Some research suggests that not smoking may reduce the chances of contracting meningitis in the family. Apart from vaccines, there is no known way to protect against meningitis and meningococcal septicemia, while viral meningitis does not respond to antibiotics. Treatment for virus meningitis is based on rest and good nursing care. Fungal meningitis requires anti-fungal therapy and appropriate management.

Prevention of meningococcal disease

It is possible to prevent the spreading of meningococcal disease from person to person. However, it is important that the doctor identifies the disease, and that close contacts of that patient receive antibiotics to clear the organism from their throat. It is also possible to prevent some forms of meningococcal disease by vaccine. That is why it is important to remember that some forms of bacterial meningitis are contagious. The bacteria spread through the exchange of respiratory and throat secretions, such as coughing or kissing. Fortunately, none of the bacteria that cause meningitis is as contagious as things like the common cold or the flu. These bacteria cannot spread by casual contact, or by simply breathing the air where a person with meningitis has been.

Until now, there are vaccines against Hib, as well as against some strains of N. meningitidis and many types of Streptococcus pneumoniae. The vaccines against Hib are entirely safe and highly effective in treatment. In addition, there is a vaccine that protects against four strains of Neisseria meningitidis. The vaccine against N. meningitidis helps control outbreaks of some types of meningococcal meningitis in the United States. Meningitis cases should report to state or local health departments to assure a follow-up of close contacts. Moreover, cigarette smoking, both active and passive, appears to increase the risk of a person developing the meningococcal disease. This is yet another reason to stop smoking and to keep adults from smoking near young children beside all the known side effects of smoking we already know.

As previously mentioned, there is a small but real risk for those who live in the same house as a person with meningococcal disease of developing the disease. This is because the carrier who infected the patient is able to spread the germ to others, although there is no accurate and quick test to identify the carrier, so all of the household contacts of the patient are regarded as potential carriers. Public health authorities attempt to get in touch with these household contacts to explain to them the nature of the disease and to dispense a short course of an antibiotic for meningococcal disease. The purpose of the antibiotic is to eliminate the germ from the nose or throat of the carrier, but cases of disease may occur despite taking the antibiotic.

Therefore, the contacts must also look out for the symptoms of the disease. Sometimes other contacts also should receive the same advices and antibiotic. These contacts might be young children in a childcare centre, or some health care workers who are very closely involved with treatment of the patient. However, it is very important that the public health authorities involve in the identification of other contacts, because we should all use antibiotics very carefully.

How safe is the vaccine against meningococcal disease?

The safety of vaccines is of paramount concern. While a vaccine is important to control the epidemic, the process of vaccine development and licensure should not be rushed at the expense of safety and quality. The vaccine has met the same standards of safety and quality as any other medicine in the world. As there are no live bacteria in the vaccine, it cannot cause meningococcal disease according to the knowledge we have. Therefore, the vaccine for meningococcal disease has all the internationally agreed standards. The clinical trials found that the vaccine was safe as well. Tests showed that individuals who receive three doses of this vaccine develop the levels of antibodies expected to provide protection against the disease. The trials ran smoothly and no serious adverse events relating to the meningococcal diseases prevention vaccine occurred. In addition, overseas experiences with similar vaccines show that serious adverse events are unlikely if a person receives this vaccine. Millions of doses of vaccine are used all around the world. Serious side effects are very rare after vaccination with the meningococcal B disease vaccine, although no vaccine is entirely without reaction.