What Is Meningococcal Disease?
Meningococcal disease is caused by an infection that affects the meninges. The meninges is the protective membrane that surrounds the brain and spinal cord. A bacterial infection of the meninges, called bacterial meningitis , can cause death within hours. This bacteria can also cause infections in the blood.
The disease is most common in:
- Infants aged less than 1 year old
- People aged 16-21 years old
- People with certain medical conditions
- Community settings where large groups of people gather, such as college dorms or military bases
About 1,200 people in the US develop the disease each year. Approximately 10%-15% of these people die. Another 11%-19% lose their arms or legs, become deaf, have nervous system problems, or suffer seizures or strokes .
Symptoms of meningitis include:
- High fever
- Very stiff, sore neck
- Sensitivity to bright lights
- Mental confusion
Symptoms in newborn and infants can be hard to notice. These may include:
- Unexplained high fever or low body temperature
- Feeding poorly or refusing to eat
- Tautness or bulging of soft spots between skull bones
- Difficulty waking
Treatment may include:
- Fluid replacement
What Is the Meningococcal Vaccine?
There are 3 meningococcal vaccines available in the US:
- Meningococcal conjugate vaccine (MCV4)—given as a shot into the muscle, preferred for people age 55 years or younger
- Meningococcal polysaccharide vaccine (MPSV4)—given as a shot under the skin, preferred for adults age 56 years or older
- Serogroup B meningococcal vaccines
These vaccines are made from parts of the meningococcal bacteria. They do not contain live bacteria.
Who Should Get Vaccinated and When?
The MCV4 vaccine is routinely given to children aged 11-12 years old with a booster dose given at age 16 years. It can also be given to children with high-risk conditions as early as 2 months of age.
Three doses are given to teens (11-18 years old) who have HIV:
- Two doses given 2 months apart at 11 or 12 years old
- Booster dose at age 16
Teens who receive the vaccine late follow this schedule:
- If the first dose is given between 13-15 years old, the booster dose is given between 16-18 years old.
- If the first dose is given after 16 years old, then the booster dose is not needed.
Vaccination for People at Increased Risk
The following groups of people need to be vaccinated because they have an increased risk of meningitis:
- College freshmen who live in dorms
- People who work in labs who may be exposed to meningococcal bacteria
- Military personnel
- People who travel to or live in areas where meningococcal disease is common
- People who have problems with spleen function or have had their spleen removed
- People who have a weakened immune system
- People who have been exposed to meningitis during an outbreak
Young children aged 9-23 months and others who have certain conditions need to be given 2 doses in order to be fully protected.
People who are at high risk will need a booster dose every 5 years.
In addition, teens and young adults (aged 16-23 years old) may also be vaccinated with a serogroup B meningococcal vaccine, preferably at 16-18 years of age. Two or three doses are needed depending on the particular vaccine used.
What Are the Risks Associated With the Meningococcal Vaccine?
The meningococcal vaccine, like all vaccines, has the potential to cause serious problems, such as severe allergic reactions. The risk of the vaccine causing serious harm or death is extremely small.
Mild problems associated with the vaccine include redness or pain at the injection site or a fever.
Who Should Not Get Vaccinated?
If you have the following conditions, you should not get the vaccine:
- Have had a life-threatening allergic reaction to a previous dose of the vaccine or its components
- Are moderately or severely ill
The vaccines may be given to pregnant women. However, the MCV4 vaccine has not been extensively studied in pregnant women. It should be used only if it is clearly needed.
What Other Ways Can Meningococcal Disease Be Prevented Besides Vaccination?
Preventive antibiotics may be given to people in close contact with an infected person, such as:
- Healthcare workers
- Family members
What Happens in the Event of an Outbreak?
In the event of an outbreak, close contacts of infected people and people at increased risk should get the vaccine. Antibiotics may be recommended for people in close contact.
- David L. Horn, MD
- Reviewed: 11/2015
- Updated: 11/11/2015
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