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What you need to know about bacterial meningitis

Last Modified: 5/22/2018

compendium_600x400_bacteriameningitis_12_15.jpg PreviewDue to a confirmed case, you might have heard meningococcal disease mentioned in the local news.  What do you need to know about the disease, the symptoms and the common treatment? The Fort Wayne-Allen County Department of Health (DOH) offers the following information in relation to the rare condition.

Frequently Asked Questions about Meningococcal Disease

What is Meningitis?

Meningitis is a disease caused by the inflammation of the protective membranes covering the brain and spinal cord known as the meninges. The inflammation is usually caused by an infection of the fluid surrounding the brain and spinal cord. Meningitis may develop in response to a number of causes, but is usually caused by bacteria or viruses.

What is the difference between viral and bacterial meningitis?

Meningitis is a potentially life threatening disease that is caused by a viral or bacterial infection. Viral meningitis is generally less severe and can clear up without specific treatment. Bacterial meningitis, on the other hand, requires prompt treatment with antibiotics and, even with treatment, brain damage, hearing loss, and learning disability may result. There are also different types of bacterial meningitis, caused by different bacteria, including: -Neisseria Meningitis, Haemophilus influenza type b (Hib, and Streptococcus pneumonia.

In the United States, almost all cases are caused by five strains of the Neisseria meningitidis bacterium, four of which are vaccine-preventable.

What is meningococcal disease?

Meningococcal disease is a serious bacterial infection that can cause meningitis (swelling of the brain or spinal cord) or meningococcemia (blood infection) and is caused by Neisseria Meningitis.

What are the symptoms of meningococcal meningitis?

Symptoms of bacterial meningitis include high fever, stiff neck and headache.  Other symptoms may include nausea, vomiting, confusion, and sensitivity to light.  Later in the illness, a rash that looks like purple blotches or spots on the arm, legs and torso may appear. 

How serious is meningococcal meningitis?

Although rare, meningitis is a serious disease that can kill or disable an otherwise healthy person in a single day.  About 10% of people who get meningococcal disease will die.  Of those who survive, 1 in 5 is left with serious medical problems, including amputation of arms, legs, fingers, and toes; brain damage, deafness; and organ damage.

How is meningococcal disease treated?

Treatment should be started as soon as possible.  Most people with meningococcal disease are hospitalized and treated with antibiotics.  Depending on the severity of the infection, other treatments including supportive care may also be necessary.

How common is meningococcal meningitis?

Meningococcal disease is rare – about 1,000-2,600 people in the U.S. get the disease each year.  But given the devastating nature of meningococcal disease, prevention is very important.  Vaccination is the best way to help prevent meningitis. 

How do you get meningococcal meningitis?

Meningococcal bacteria are spread by exchanging respiratory and throat secretions (saliva or spit) during close (for example, coughing or kissing) or lengthy contact, especially if living in the same household. Fortunately, these bacteria are not as contagious as germs that cause the common cold or the flu. The bacteria are not spread by casual contact or by simply breathing the air where a person with meningococcal disease has been.  Sometimes Neisseria meningitidis bacteria spread to people who have had close or lengthy contact with a patient with meningococcal disease. People in the same household, roommates, or anyone with direct contact with a patient's oral secretions, such as a boyfriend or girlfriend, would be considered at increased risk of getting the infection.

How long until symptoms develop?

Symptoms can develop over several hours, or may take a few days.  The incubation period, which is the time from infection to onset of symptoms, can be one to two weeks long.

What role does public health play?

All cases of bacterial meningitis and septicemia are required to be reported to the local Health Department, who collaborates with the State Department of Health and utilizes national guidelines to decide what needs to be done to protect the community, and will also advise schools, colleges or healthcare facilities dealing with cases. The health department will make sure that anyone at increased risk of meningococcal disease is contacted and offered antibiotics, usually ciprofloxacin or rifampin. This only needs to be provided to people who have had extended close contact, for example living with or kissing the infected person, as this bacteria is not easily transmitted person to person.

Finally, the health department will make sure all local healthcare providers are aware of the situation to be on the lookout for people who might have been exposed or other new cases.

What should I do if I develop flu-like symptoms or think I have been exposed to meningitis?

People experiencing high fever with or without headache, stiff neck and other symptoms of meningitis should be examined by their primary care doctor or visit the local ER and share their concerns regarding exposure with the provider. 

What else can I do to prevent transmission of this and other similar diseases?

A good rule of thumb to always abide by is to NOT share anything that comes into contact with the mouth, including: -Water bottles, lip balm, toothbrushes, towels, drinking glasses, eating utensils, cosmetics, smoking materials, food or drink from common source.  This will prevent transmission of many if not most bacteria and viruses.

Who should get the meningococcal vaccine?

Meningococcal vaccination is recommended for all preteens and teens.

Quadrivalent Meningococcal Conjugate Vaccine

All 11 to 12 year olds should be vaccinated with a single dose of a quadrivalent (protects against serogroups A, C, W, and Y) meningococcal conjugate vaccine (Menactra® or Menveo®). Since protection decreases over time, a booster dose is recommended at age 16 so teens continue to have protection during the years when they are at highest risk of meningococcal disease.

Serogroup B Meningococcal Vaccine

Teens and young adults (16 through 23 year olds) may also be vaccinated with a serogroup B meningococcal vaccine (Bexsero® or Trumenba®), preferably at 16 through 18 years old. Two or three doses are needed depending on the brand.

Can someone be a “carrier” without experiencing symptoms?

Approximately 5 to 25 percent of people may carry the bacteria in their nose or throat without getting sick.  This carrier state may last for days or months before spontaneously disappearing. Most cases of meningococcal disease are acquired through exposure to these asymptomatic carriers for reasons that are not clear and still under investigation.

Why don’t carriers get sick?

We do not yet fully understand why some people get ill from germs that are harmless to most of us.  We do know that people who are immune compromised or whose immune system is not fully developed are at higher risk.

Can both viral and bacterial meningitis be prevented by vaccination?

There are no vaccines against the most common causes of viral meningitis in the United States.  However, some diseases that can lead to viral meningitis, like measles, mumps, chicken pox and influenza, can be prevented by vaccination.  Vaccination is available to help protect against the three types of bacterial meningitis: Neisseria meningitidis, Hib and Streptococcus pneumoniae. Hib and Streptococcus pneumonia vaccines are routinely given during infancy.  Vaccination against four strains of Neisseria meningitidis is recommended for preteens and teens as mentioned above. 

Can you tell me the name of the person with meningitis so we know if our child is at risk?

No. We are very restricted in what information we can provide in accordance with state and federal medical confidentiality laws. Any information that could identify the person -- including name, age or race and other identifying information -- is confidential under state and federal health care privacy laws.

Is the school going to be disinfected?

There is no need to disinfect the classrooms at this time as meningitis is not spread through the air or by contact with general surfaces.


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