Meningococcal disease is a bacterial infection caused by Neisseria meningitides. It can lead to meningitis which is an infection of the brain and spinal cord or blood. The disease often occurs without warning, even among persons who are otherwise healthy. Neisseria meningitides colonizes on the mucous membranes in the nose and throat. The bacteria are transmitted by direct contact through close contact such as coughing, sneezing, sharing of water bottles, and kissing. It also often occurs among people living in close proximity with one another, such as the same household or college dormitories.
Anyone can contact meningococcal disease, but certain people are at increased risk. This would include the following:
- Infants under the age of one
- Teens and young adults aged 16 through 23
- People with compromised immune systems
- Scientists who routinely work with Neisseria meningitides
- Community members who are at risk because of an outbreak in the community
Even treated, meningococcal disease has a fatality rate of 10-15%. Twenty percent of disease survivors suffer disabilities such as hearing loss, brain damage, kidney damage, neurological disabilities, or loss of limbs or fingers and toes.
Meningococcal meningitis is a serious life-threatening disease, even with treatment. That’s why prevention is a far better approach. Meningococcal vaccines can prevent meningitis infection. The vaccines can’t prevent all types of the disease, but all of the vaccines can prevent many types of the disease.
Older meningitis vaccines that have been routinely given to adolescents for the past decade don’t protect against the B strains. Menactra and Menveo are meningococcal vaccines which are currently required for children at age 11, with a booster being given at age 16. These vaccines tend to give longer protection and are better at preventing transmission of the disease.
Meningococcal B vaccines protect against a category of strains of Neisseria meningitides known as serogroup B. Two Meningococcal B vaccines have been approved by the FDA (Food and Drug Administration): Bexsero and Trumenba. The vaccine is recommended for children ages 16 to 18 and may be administered to adolescents and young adults ages 16 through 23 years to provide short term protection against most strains of serogroup B meningococcal disease. This strain has caused many of the cases of bacterial meningitis that has been reported on college campuses in the United States in recent years. Therefore, if you opt to have your child vaccinated, it is best to get the vaccine as close to entering college as possible.
To learn more about the vaccine, talk to your health care provider.