Questions & Answers
Meningococcal - The Disease
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Rate and Spread

  1. How common is meningococcal disease in the United States?
    The disease is most common in children less than one year old and in people with certain medical conditions. Others at risk include travelers to places where meningococcal disease is common, those with damaged or missing spleens, and people with certain blood diseases. Other factors include having a previous viral infection, living in a crowded household, having an underlying chronic illness, and being exposed to cigarette smoke - either directly or second-hand. College freshmen living in dormitories are at greater risk than others their age.

    Each year in the United States an estimated 2600 people are infected with meningococcus and 300 die from the disease. Meningococcal disease is more common in Africa and is the frequent cause of epidemic meningitis outbreaks. In Africa, such epidemics occur regularly within a well-limited geographic zone, the so-called African meningitis belt. In the countries within the meningitis belt, the illness is endemic and sporadic: numerous cases of meningococcal meningitis are reported each year during the dry season, and every 6 to 12 years a large outbreak occurs. The World Health Organization estimated meningococcal disease was the cause of 171,000 deaths worldwide in 2000.

  2. How does meningococcal disease spread from one person to another?
    The disease is spread person-to-person through the exchange of respiratory and throat secretions (e.g., coughing, kissing, sharing eating utensils). Meningococcal bacteria cannot live for more than a few minutes outside the body, so the disease is not spread as easily as the common cold or influenza.

  3. Can you get meningitis more than once?
    Yes, because meningitis results from infection by different types of the meningococcal bacterium, by other bacteria such as Streptococcus and Haemophilus, and by viruses and fungi.

  4. What can be done to protect those exposed to someone with the disease?
    Individuals who have been exposed to a person with bacterial meningitis can be protected by starting antibiotics immediately (within 24 hours of diagnosis). Antibiotics are usually recommended for household contacts and children attending the same daycare or nursery school as the person who is sick. Older children are not usually considered exposed, unless they have had intimate contact with an infected person, such as kissing or sharing a glass. Immunization may also be recommended for those two years of age and older.