What is meningococcal disease?

Meningococcal disease refers to illness caused by the bacteria called Neisseria meningitidis. The most feared form of this disease is meningococcal meningitis (infection of the covering around the brain and spinal cord). Meningococcal disease is spread by close contact with an infected person, such as living together or kissing.

Common symptoms of meningococcal meningitis include sudden fever, headache, and stiff neck. Other symptoms can include nausea, vomiting, increased sensitivity to light, and confusion. Children and infants may show different signs, such as inactivity, irritability, or vomiting. Meningococcal disease in the blood can lead to tiredness, vomiting, cold hands and feet, chills, severe aches and pain, fast breathing, diarrhea, and a dark purple rash. Meningococcal disease is very serious and can be rapidly fatal.

Who is at risk?

Anyone can get meningococcal disease, but certain groups of people are at increased risk. Although meningococcal disease is found worldwide, the “meningitis belt” of sub-Saharan Africa has the highest rates in the world - several times higher than in the U.S. The disease is most common in these countries during the dry season (December through June). Travelers who spend a lot of time with local populations in the meningitis belt during a large outbreak have the highest risk of contracting the disease.

In addition to the meningitis belt, travelers to the Hajj pilgrimage in Saudi Arabia are also at risk. The Hajj has been associated with large outbreaks of meningococcal disease in returning pilgrims and people in close contact with them.

What can travelers do to prevent meningococcal disease?

Get a meningococcal vaccine

  • Meningococcal vaccine is recommended for people traveling to countries in the “meningitis belt” during the dry season (December through June).
  • Even if you have received this vaccine in the past, you may need a booster dose, usually every 5 years.
  • Travelers to the Hajj must show proof of vaccination in the past 3 years in order to get their visa from Saudi Arabia.
    • Infants and young children who received MenHibRix® and are travelling to areas with high endemic rates of meningococcal disease are not protected against the strains there (serogroups A and W) and should receive 1 or 2 doses of a quadrivalent meningococcal vaccine licensed for children aged 9 months or older before travel.
  • It takes approximately 7 to 10 days after receiving the vaccine before a person can develop protection against the disease.

Reduce your exposure to germs

  • Wash your hands often.
  • If soap and water aren’t available, clean your hands with hand sanitizer (containing at least 60% alcohol).
  • Don’t touch your eyes, nose, or mouth. If you need to touch your face, make sure your hands are clean.
  • Cover your mouth and nose with a tissue or your sleeve (not your hands) when coughing or sneezing.
  • Try to avoid contact with people who are sick.

Page reviewed on: Mar 09, 2017

Page reviewed by: Jessie L. Leyse, MD