Meningococcal disease

Meningococcal disease is a life-threatening infection. It is a term used to describe two major illnesses - meningitis and septicaemia. These can occur on their own or more commonly both together.

Questions about Meningococcal disease

What it is and how to recognise it.

What are meningitis and septicaemia?

Meningitis is inflammation of the membranes that surround the brain and spinal cord. These membranes are called the meninges and they help protect the brain from injury and infection.

Septicaemia is a severe infection of the blood.  Bacteria multiply in the blood, releasing endotoxins that cause widespread damage to the body

Meningococcal disease is caused by meningococcus bacterium.  There are 5 main groups: A,B,C,W and Y that are responsible for the disease around the world.

Cases of Meningitis and Septicaemia caused by meningococcal W (Men W) bacteria are increasing in the UK.

How do you get meningococcal disease?

Although a serious infection, it is not particularly infectious. One in four young adults carry the germs which cause meningococcal disease in their throats without ever getting ill. In a small number of people who have no immunity to the bacterium it can travel into the bloodstream and cause meningococcal disease.

The bacterium which causes meningitis dies quickly once outside the body and hence close, direct contact is needed to transfer the bacterium in nasal or throat secretions from one individual to another. Bacteria may be spread by coughing, sneezing or kissing. Outbreaks occur in places where people live or work in large groups.

How do you recognise meningococcal meningitis/septicaemia?

Meningococcal meningitis

Meningitis is not easy to identify at first because the symptoms are similar to those of flu or a hangover. However, it can develop rapidly, sometimes within hours, to a very serious illness. Because someone with meningitis may not be aware of how serious their condition is, it is important to look out for friends who may have flu-like symptoms and check for any of the following signs or for a rapid deterioration. If someone does not come out of their room, check to see if they are OK.

Anyone with the following symptoms should consider getting medical advice.

  • Severe headache
  • Nausea and Vomiting
  • Stiff neck
  • Inability to tolerate bright lights
  • Disorientation
  • Drowsiness or lethargy
  • Convulsions/seizures

Meningococcal septicaemia

As the bacteria multiply rapidly in the bloodstream, they release endotoxins, which damage the blood vessels. This results in the more specific symptoms of septicaemia:

  • Fever with cold hands and feet
  • Joint or muscle pain
  • Rapid breathing/grunting
  • Stomach cramps and diarrhoea
  • A rash of red or purple spots that does not fade on pressure with a glass

The Meningitis Trust website provides a useful list of common symptoms in different age groups with illustrative images.

Men ACWY vaccine

From the 1st Sept 2015 the routine Men C vaccine will be directly replaced with the Men ACWY vaccine to offer direct protection against meningococcal capsular group W. Students are strongly encouraged to get the vaccine from their GP. It is also available from the Nurse Advisor at the Health Centre.

Further information