Questions & Answers
Meningococcal - The Disease
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  1. What causes meningococcal disease?
    Meningococcal disease is a severe acute infection caused by the bacterium Neisseria meningitidis (also known as meningococcus). Meningococcus infects the bloodstream and the lining of the brain and spinal cord (causing meningitis). Five different types of meningococcal bacteria cause virtually all meningococcal disease in the world. These types are grouped based on a complex sugar that coats the bacteria (called a polysaccharide). These five types of meningococcal bacteria are called serotypes A, B, C, Y, and W-135.

  2. How do you know if you have meningococcal disease?
    The most common symptoms are high fever, chills, tiredness, and a rash. If meningitis is present, the symptoms will also include severe headache and a stiff neck (which may not be present in infants); seizures may also occur. Symptoms can be mistaken for other illnesses and can unfortunately lead to delayed diagnosis and treatment.

    Diagnosis is made from blood and spinal-fluid samples. Any bacteria found are grown in a medical laboratory and identified.

  3. How serious is meningococcal disease, especially to the Armed Forces?
    Meningococcal bacteria are very dangerous, because they rapidly make large quantities of a poison called endotoxin. Endotoxin damages small blood vessels and causes low blood pressure and shock. For this reason, meningococcal bacteria can kill people soon after entering the bloodstream. Meningococcal disease can be so rapid and overwhelming that even appropriate, early medical care can be too late. About 10% to 15% of people with meningococcal disease die. Of those who survive, up to 20% suffer from permanent hearing loss, limb loss, or neurological damage. Amputations may be necessary because of reduced blood flow to fingers, toes, or limbs.

    Because meningitis can be caused by different types of meningococcus and other microbes, being immunized against Neisseria meningitidis or having had the disease will not protect against these other sources of infection. The other causes include bacteria such as Streptococcus or Haemophilus, viruses, or fungi.

  4. Is there a treatment for meningococcal disease?
    Meningococcal disease can be treated with antibiotics. It is critical to start treatment early. Even with treatment, about 10% to 15% of patients die.

  5. Can meningitis be caused by a virus?
    Yes. The word "meningitis" refers to inflammation of the tissues covering the brain and spinal cord. This inflammation can be caused by viruses and fungi, as well as bacteria. Viral meningitis is the most common type. It has no specific treatment, but it is usually not as serious as meningitis caused by bacteria.