Facts about Meningococcal Disease for Adults

What is meningococcal disease? 
Meningococcal (muh-nin-jo-kok-ul) disease is a very serious bacterial infection that causes severe swelling of the protective lining around the brain and spinal cord (meningitis) or infection of the bloodstream (meningococcal sepsis). Less often, it causes arthritis or pneumonia. The bacteria that cause meningococcal disease are spread by close, direct contact with people who carry the bacteria in their nose or throat. Even with appropriate treatment, one in 10 people who get meningococcal disease will die and up to two in 10 more will have serious permanent disabilities including brain damage, hearing loss, and limb amputations. 

In its early stages, meningococcal disease symptoms can include fever, headache, body aches, and a stiff neck. These symptoms may be mild and easily mistaken for less severe illnesses, like a bad cold. But symptoms can progress quickly, killing an otherwise healthy young person in less than 48 hours. Other symptoms that may occur are nausea, vomiting, confusion, sleepiness, sensitivity to light, and a rash (usually dark purple spots on the arms, legs, or torso).

Meningococcal vaccines are effective at preventing meningococcal disease caused by four of the five types of bacteria that cause the majority of meningococcal disease worldwide. One vaccine dose is needed for most adults who require protection against meningococcal vaccine. One type of vaccine, called a conjugate vaccine, is available for adults up to age 55 years and another type, called a polysaccharide vaccine, is available for people over age 55.

Who should get meningococcal vaccine? 
Adults at increased risk of meningococcal disease should be vaccinated; they include: college students, military recruits, international travelers going to certain areas where meningococcal disease is epidemic, scientists who may be exposed to the bacteria, and people who have had their spleen removed (or who have a non-functioning spleen), as well as other adults with certain medical conditions. Some people at increased risk may need two doses to be protected.

Meningococcal vaccination is recommended routinely for all adolescents at age 11 to 12 years with a booster dose at age 16.

Vaccine safety 
Meningococcal vaccines are safe. Vaccine reactions are usually mild. The most common reactions are pain and redness at the injection site. You cannot get meningococcal disease from the vaccine. The potential risks associated with meningococcal disease are much greater than the potential risks associated with the vaccine.

Disease and vaccine facts

  • FACT:  Meningococcal conjugate vaccine is a safe and effective vaccine licensed to prevent meningococcal disease in people age 2 to 55 years. Meningococcal polysaccharide vaccine is safe and effective, and available for people over age 55.
  • FACT:  Both vaccines protect against four of the five types of meningococcal bacteria that cause most meningococcal disease. 
  • FACT: You cannot get meningococcal disease from vaccination. 
  • FACT:  Both vaccines are safe and side effects after vaccination are usually minor and can include pain and redness at the injection site. 
  • FACT: The number of meningococcal cases in the US changes from year to year; in recent years, about 800–1200 Americans have been infected annually.
  • FACT:  About one in 10 people who get meningococcal disease will die from it and two in 10 survivors will have serious permanent disabilities like brain damage, hearing loss, and limb amputations.
  • FACT: While some adults are at increased risk and need vaccination, adolescents have a higher risk, which is why the vaccine is recommended for all adolescents at age 11-12 years with a booster dose at age 16.
  • FACT: Meningococcal bacteria are spread through close, direct contact with a person carrying the bacteria and not through casual contact such as breathing air where an infected person has been. 
  • FACT: Early symptoms of meningococcal disease (fever, headache, body aches, and stiff neck) may be mistaken for other less serious illnesses like the common cold, but meningococcal disease symptoms can progress quickly killing an otherwise healthy young person in two days or less

January 2012

For more information, speak with your healthcare professional or visit www.adultvaccination.org.