Meningococcal disease

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

Meningococcal disease – the facts

  • In the past decade there have been between 700 and 1300 reported cases of meningococcal disease each year in the UK. This is still the most common cause of bacterial meningitis
  • Most people will make a good recovery, but it can rapidly result in death and leave people with severe after-effects
  • 5 – 10% of cases will result in death
  • Of those who survive, 15% can be left with severe and disabling after-effects such as loss of hearing and sight, brain damage and, where septicaemia has occurred, damage to major organs, loss or digits and limbs
  • Some survivors can also be left with less noticeable, but still significant after-effects including memory loss, learning difficulties, anxiety and depression
  • It can strike at any age, but most cases occur in babies and young children. The next most vulnerable group is teenagers and young people

Download the meningococcal fact sheet

How meningococcal disease is caused

Meningococcal disease is caused by a bacterium called the meningococcus. There are five main groups that commonly cause disease – A, B, C, W and Y.

  • Group B causes the majority of disease in the UK
  • Around 10% of the population carries meningococcal bacteria in the back of their throats at any given time. This is usually  healthy carriage, and should help 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

What is meningococcal meningitis?

When the meningococcal bacteria infect the meninges (the protective layers around the brain), the blood vessels in the linings of the brain are damaged. This allows the bacteria to break through and infect the cerebrospinal fluid (CSF) and the meninges become inflamed and pressure around the brain can cause nerve damage.

After-effects

Meningococcal meningitis can leave people with after-effects, including:

You can read more in-depth information about the after-effects of meningitis in our fact sheets

What is meningococcal septicaemia?

  • Meningococcal bacteria multiply in the blood, releasing endotoxins (poisons) that cause widespread damage to the body
  • The toxins in the blood damage blood vessels and stop the vital flow of oxygen to the organs including the skin and underlying tissues
  • Septicaemia is generally more life-threatening than meningitis

After effects 

The 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:

How is meningococcal disease 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. 

Can meningococcal disease be prevented?

Vaccines are the only way to prevent infectious illnesses such as meningococcal disease. Some groups of meningococcal disease can be prevented with vaccines. 

Find out more about vaccines

What happens when there is a case of meningococcal disease?

  • Most cases of meningococcal disease happen alone, and the likelihood of a second related case is extremely small, but occasionally they can happen.
  • Management of meningococcal 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

Been affected by meningococcal disease?

Don’t face meningitis alone. Call our Meningitis Helpline on 0808 80 10 388 to speak to our experienced staff. You can access our free support or ask us any questions. Whatever your experience, whenever it was, please get in touch. Our support is for life.