Meningococcal disease is a life-threatening infection. It is the term used to describe two major illnesses – meningitis and septicaemia*.
These can occur on their own or more commonly both together. Most people will make a good recovery but at worst meningococcal disease causes severe illness that can rapidly result in death. Septicaemia is usually more life-threatening than meningitis.
A life-threatening infection caused by the bacterium Neisseria meningitidis, commonly called the meningococcus. There are six main strains (serogroups) that cause disease around the world; MenA, MenB, MenC, MenW, MenX and MenY.
There are vaccines to protect against some, but not all, strains of meningococcal bacteria.
Although most people will make a good recovery, some will be left with life-changing after-effects and some will die.
- Meningococcal disease is still the most common cause of bacterial meningitis
- Up to 10% of cases will result in death
- Many people who contract meningococcal disease will make a good recovery, but some will suffer physical, neurological and psychological after-effects
- It can strike at any age, but babies and young children are most at risk. The next most vulnerable group is teenagers and young people
Download the meningococcal fact sheet.
How is it caused?
- Around 10% of the population carries meningococcal bacteria in the back of their throats at any given time. This is usually healthy carriage and helps develop immunity
- Occasionally the bacteria defeat the body’s defences and cause infection
- The bacteria are passed from person to person by coughing, sneezing and intimate kissing
- The bacteria break through the lining at the back of the throat and pass into the bloodstream
- They can travel in the bloodstream to infect the meninges, causing meningitis, or while in the bloodstream they can cause septicaemia
How is it treated?
Meningococcal meningitis and septicaemia need urgent treatment with antibiotics and rapid admission to hospital. If treated promptly, meningitis and septicaemia are less likely to become life-threatening.
After-effects of meningococcal disease
After-effects of meningococcal septicaemia*
Toxins damage the blood vessels and reduce the flow of oxygen to the major organs including the skin and underlying tissues. This can lead to:
- Skin and tissue damage
- Bone growth problems
- Organ failure
- Limb loss
*Many medical experts now use the term sepsis instead of septicaemia.
Can meningococcal disease be prevented?
What happens next?
Most cases happen alone, and the likelihood of a second related case is extremely rare, but occasionally they can happen.
- Management of the disease in the community is the responsibility of a doctor who specialises in the public health management of infectious diseases
- The public health team (doctors and nurses) will visit the patient and their family in hospital in order to identify close contacts; these include household family members and intimate kissing contacts
- Close contacts may be given antibiotics in order to reduce the risk of further cases. The antibiotics will kill any meningococcal bacteria being carried in the back of the throat, reducing the risk of further transmission
- Close contacts may also be offered vaccination if a vaccine preventable group has been identified
- Each situation will be individually assessed and appropriate action taken. For example, if a second case occurs within four weeks in the same nursery school, all children and staff will be offered antibiotics (and vaccination if appropriate)
- The public health team will liaise with local GPs, relevant schools/nurseries or places of work to ensure good communication between all those concerned