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What is meningococcal disease?

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Meningococcal disease is a sudden illness caused by bacteria. It can infect the bloodstream or the linings covering the brain and spinal cord.    

Many healthy adults and children carry the bacteria in their nose and throat. Though these individuals may not have symptoms or be ill, they can spread the infection to others. It is spread by direct contact with nasal or throat secretions of a carrier or ill person. If you are in the same room as an infected person, the organism cannot spread to you.

Who gets meningococcal disease?

Anyone can get meningococcal disease, but it is more common in infants and children. According to recent studies, children exposed to tobacco smoke are at higher risk for infection. College freshmen living in dormitories may also be at higher risk.

Vaccine will protect against some strains of the bacteria, but it is usually only recommended in outbreaks and for travel to areas of the world with high rates of the disease. College students who live in dorms may also consider getting the vaccine.

What are the symptoms of meningococcal disease?

Most people exposed to the meningococcal bacteria do not become ill. Others can have fever, cough, runny nose, intense headache, stiff neck, and unusual skin lesions. A fine, spotty pink rash may become dark patches. Symptoms occur two to 10 days after exposure. Some people develop infections of the blood or brain. Even with treatment, about 10% of severe cases are fatal. About 10-20% of patients who recover have chronic damage to the nervous system.

What can you do to prevent the spread?

A carrier or ill persons spreads the disease by direct contact with nasal or throat secretions. Close contacts of ill individuals receive antibiotics to reduce the number of bacteria in the nose and throat. Close contacts can include household members, intimate contacts, day care center playmates, and healthcare personnel performing certain procedures such as mouth-to-mouth resuscitation. Casual contacts such as classmates or co-workers usually do not require treatment.  

Wash hands frequently and avoid sharing drinks or utensils to protect against meningococcal disease and other illnesses spread through respiratory droplets.

For further information, contact Tacoma-Pierce County Health Department at (253) 798-6410 (press “0” for the operator).

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