Meningococcal meningitis is a meningitis caused by the bacteria Neisseria meningitidis. Direct contact with an infected person is not necessary to catch the disease, since it can spread through droplets in the air.
Meningococcal meningitis is a potentially deadly disease. Some of those who survive suffer from permanent brain damage. .
In England, a majority of all diagnosed meningococcal infections are caused by meningococcal bacteria belonging to Group B. This group is commonly referred to as Men B. Meningococcal bacteria from the group W (Men W) is responsible for roughly 25% of diagnosed cases.
Since the early 2000s, the number of meningococcal cases in England has been falling, largely due to the vaccination programs. It should be noted however that Group W infections have increased from 22 cases in 2009 to 117 cases in 2014. From 2009 to 2012, an average of four people died of Men W in England per annum. Most of them were elderly. In 2013 and 2014, there were suddenly 24 deaths from Men W and, for the first time in over a decade, the fatalities included babies and toddlers. Men W infections have a higher death rate than the more common Men C and Men B infections.
It is not uncommon for a person to have Neisseria meningitidis in the throat without developing meningitis. Why some people develop meningitis when infected by this bacteria remains largely unknown. It is not uncommon for one person in a family to get meningitis, while all the other family members remains healthy – despite being carriers of bacteria belonging to the same species and group as the ill person.
Vaccination against meningococcal meningitis
There are several identified groups of meningococcal bacteria that can cause meningococcal meningitis, but so far it is only possible to vaccinate against some of them. Which groups you need vaccination against depends on several factors, and some groups are more common in certain geographical locations than others.
Routine meningococcal meningitis vaccines for free on the NHS
Below is a list of the vaccines against meningococcal meningitis that are routinely offered to residents in the UK for free on the NHS, and the ages for which they are scheduled.
|Age of the person||Vaccine|
|8 weeks||Men B|
|12 weeks||Men C|
|16 weeks||Men B (second dose)|
|1 year||Men C (second dose)|
|1 year||Men B (third dose)|
|14 years||Men ACWY|
|First-time university student up to 25 years of age.||Men ACWY (catch-up, for unvaccinated persons only)|
The Men ACWY vaccine is a combined vaccine that protects against four different meningococcal causes of meningitis – A, C, W and Y. Since this vaccine was added to the schedule fairly recently, there are a lot of young people in the United Kingdom that has not received the vaccine even though they are above 14 years of age. Because of this, the ACWY vaccine is routinely offered to first-time university students up to 25 years of age. Unvaccinated students (including overseas students) are advised to contact their GP to receive the Men ACWY vaccine, ideally before the start of or in the first few weeks of the academic year.
Do I need vaccination against meningococcal meningitis?
If you live in the United Kingdom, taking the meningococcal meningitis vaccines that are offered as a part of the NHS vaccination schedule is recommended if you belong to the targeted age groups.
Here are some examples of situations where you should consider getting vaccinated against meningococcal meningitis even if it isn’t a part of the NHS vaccination schedule for you:
- You plan to visit the African meningitis belt. The risk of catching meningitis will be extra high if it is dry season, if you have close contact with the locals, and if you stay for more than just a few weeks. Meningococcal meningitis occurs world-wide, but is especially common in western and central Africa – especially during the dry season. The geographical region of Africa where meningococcal meningitis is most prevalent is known as the “meningitis belt”.
- You plan to visit an area where there is currently a meningococcal meningitis epidemics.
- You plan to spend more than three weeks in the Himalayas.
- You plan to travel to a part of South America or Central America where meningococcal meningitis is common.
- You plan to visit Saudi Arabia. Visitors to Saudi Arabia must be able to provide proof of vaccination against meningococcal meningitis to be let into the country.
- You have no spleen or your spleen doesn’t work properly. In this case, comprehensive vaccination is advisable even if you have no plans of traveling outside the United Kingdom.
- When someone is diagnosed with meningococcal meningitis, vaccination can be offered to people that has recently been in close contact with the infected person. Preventative antibiotic treatment is another option.
- If there is an outbreak of meningococcal meningitis in your area, larger scale vaccinations can be used to combat the situation. Vaccination against meningococcal meningitis can be a good idea even if you haven’t been in close contact with anyone diagnosed.
Since it can take a while for the body to develop immunity after the vaccination, you should ideally get the injection at least three weeks before you need the protection. In most people, immunity will arise much quicker than this, but it is good to have the margins on your side.
Pregnancy and breastfeeding
There are several older vaccines against meningococcal meningitis that can be used to vaccinate pregnant or breastfeeding women. Some of the newer vaccines are not recommended for pregnant or breastfeeding women, simply because these new vaccines haven’t been studied enough yet to say if they are safe or not during pregnancy or breastfeeding.
Side effects of meningococcal meningitis vaccination
Since there are several different vaccinations available againt meningococcal meningitis, it is difficult to give any generalized information about side effects. You are advised to consult the information provided by the manufacturer of the specific vaccine that you are interested in receiving, as well as information from the prescribing medical professional.
Examples of side effects
- Swelling, redness and tenderness at the injection site
- Joint pain
- It is quite common for small children to briefly lose their appetite, sometimes accompanied by nausea and vomiting.
About meningococcal meningitis
The brain and the spinal cord are surrounded by three membranes. The scientific name for these membranes is meninges (singular: meninx). An inflammation of the meninges is called meningitis.
Many different things can cause meningitis, including virus and bacteria. Meningococcal meningitis is meningitis caused by meningococcal bacteria.
The same species and group of meningococcal bacteria that is causing a deadly case of meningococcal meningitis in one person can be found in another person that has absolutely no symptoms of infection and never develop meningitis. Why this is the case remains unknown. Even within the same family that lives close together, one individual can succumb to meningococcal meningitis while the rest of the family is infected with the bacteria but develops no symptoms.
- Severe headache
- Stiff neck
- Sensitivity to light
- Sensitivity to sounds
- Small bleedings under the skin, looking like a red rash or small bruises
- Larger bleedings under the skin
- Loss of consciousness
- Lowered blood pressure
Sometimes the time period is remarkably short between noticing the first symptoms and being severely ill with convulsions, loss of consciousness, etc.
Meningococcal meningitis is treated with antibiotics, often intravenously instead of orally.
Treatment will also include handling the various symptoms.