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Meningococcal Disease

What Is Meningococcal Disease?
Meningococcal disease is a serious illness caused by Neisseria meningitides bacteria. It can cause meningococcal meningitis, an infection of the brain and spinal cord coverings, and blood infections (meningococcemia).

Meningococcal disease strikes about 3,000 Americans each year, leading to death in approximately 10 to 15 percent of cases, which translates into 300 deaths annually. It is estimated that 100 to 125 cases of meningococcal disease occur annually on college campuses and 5 to 15 students die as a result. The disease can result in permanent brain damage, hearing loss, learning disability, limb amputation, kidney failure or death.

The incidence of meningitis outbreaks has increased significantly in the college age group (18-24 years old), - 60% since 1991. Data suggest that certain social behaviors, such as exposure to passive and active smoking, bar patronage and excessive alcohol consumption, may increase students' risk for contracting the disease. Recent data also show students living in dormitories, particularly freshmen, have a six-fold increased risk for the disease.

How does meningococcal disease spread?
Meningococcal disease is spread by close or direct contact with secretions from the nose and throat. Kissing, sharing silverware, drinking directly from the same container, sharing a cigarette or lipstick/gloss, and coughing are examples of how meningococcal disease spreads.

What are the symptoms of meningitis?
The most common symptoms of meningococcal meningitis, a form of meningococcal disease, can include:

  • A high fever
  • Rash
  • Headache
  • A very stiff neck
  • Confusion
  • Nausea
  • Sensitivity to light
  • Vomiting
  • Exhaustion

These symptoms resemble the flu and as a result can be misdiagnosed. Because the infection can progress rapidly, often in as little as 12 hours, prompt diagnosis and treatment are important to assuring recovery.

Who is at Risk for Meningitis?
Recent evidence indicates that college students residing on campus in dormitories or residence halls appear to be at higher risk for meningococcal meningitis than college students overall. Further research recently released by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) shows freshmen living in dormitories have a six-fold increased risk for meningococcal meningitis than college students overall.

Although anyone can be a carrier of the bacteria that causes meningococcal meningitis, data indicate certain social behaviors, such as exposure to passive and active smoking, bar patronage and excessive alcohol consumption may put college students at increased risk for the disease.

Patients with respiratory infections, compromised immunity, those in close contact to a known case and travelers to endemic areas of the world are also at increased risk. Cases and outbreaks usually occur in the late winter and early spring when school is in session.

How can I protect myself from getting Meningococcal disease?
Wash your hands often and avoid sharing forks, spoons, drinking containers, lipstick and smoking materials. There is also a vaccine that can prevent meningococcal disease.

What should I know about the meningococcal vaccine?
The vaccine is highly effective (85-100%) at preventing four of the major strains of bacteria that cause meningococcal meningitis. These four serogroups (A, C, Y, and W-135) account for approximately 70% of cases in the United States, including the college age group. The vaccine protects for about three to five years. Immunity develops within seven to ten days after vaccination.

As with all vaccines, there can be minor reactions, including pain and redness at the injection site or a mild fever. The risk of the meningococcal vaccine causing serious harm is extremely small.

How can I learn more about meningococcal disease and the meningococcal vaccine?
Call the Calvert County Health Department Immunization Clinic at
410.535.5400 ext. 337
or visit the following websites:

Calvert County Health Department

Maryland Department of Health

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

National Meningitis Association


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