Meningitis Now staff - Claire Donovan

Contact tracing, meningitis and its history

Claire Donovan | 30th May 2020

During the current coronavirus pandemic, the term “contact tracing” has become familiar in the media.  However, contact tracing is not new

Coronavirus contact tracing

Throughout the world it has been used as an important measure to help control the spread of infectious disease. 

So how does it work? First it’s helpful to look at notifiable diseases.

Notifiable diseases 

Each country has its own list of notifiable diseases; a disease which must be reported by law to the relevant authorities. In the UK, meningococcal disease (meningitis and or septicaemia caused by meningococcal bacteria) is a notifiable disease. With the exception of Scotland, other causes of acute meningitis are also notifiable.  

Notifiable diseases are reported to the local Health Protection Team (or equivalent) by the doctor treating the patient. These teams play an important role in the prevention and reduction of disease and other hazards to health. They are led by a consultant specialising in communicable disease control. Whenever a notifiable disease is reported, the team will consider each case and take any action required to reduce the risk of infection to others. In some cases, these measures include contract tracing.

Contact Tracing

As the name suggests, contact tracing involves finding those people who have been in contact with the person who has become ill. The local health protection team will do this by speaking with the patient, where possible, and to family members to help identify this group. The group of people to be traced will differ for each disease and will depend on how infectious the disease is and how it is passed on from person to person. 

In the case of meningococcal disease, the aim is to trace those people who have had prolonged close contact with the patient during the seven days before illness. Close contacts include those living in the same household type setting. Examples include family members living in the same house, university students sharing the same kitchen or intimate kissing partners. 

Once contacts have been identified, advice about signs and symptoms of illness and any action to take is given. In the case of meningococcal disease, close contacts are usually offered a short course of antibiotics. The aim of the antibiotic is to kill any meningococcal bacteria that may be carried in the nose and throat, helping to prevent the spread to others. In some situations vaccination may also be offered. 

With the current plans to test, track and trace cases of Covid-19, contact tracing continues to play a very important role in reducing the spread of infection and controlling outbreaks. The ultimate aim is to help save lives.  

If you have any questions about contact tracing in relation to meningitis, please contact our nurse-led helpline on 0808 80 10 388 (Monday-Friday 9am- 4pm) or email: Helpline@meningitisnow.org.

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