An Indiana law requires each year that parents/guardians be informed "about meningococcal disease and its vaccine" (IC20-3-05-18).
Symptoms of meningococcal disease often resemble the flu and can include a fever, headache, nausea and a stiff neck, making the disease difficult to diagnose. The bacteria that cause meningococcal diseases are transmitted through air droplets and by direct contact with an infected person. Fortunately there is an immunization available and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends routine meningococcal immunizations at age 11 to 12 years of age. For teenagers, immunization is recommended at school entry and for incoming college freshmen.
Please talk with your child's health care provider about meningococcal disease and vaccination.
What is Meningitis?
Meningitis is an infection of the fluid of a person's spinal cord and the fluid that surrounds the brain. People sometimes refer to it as spinal meningitis. Meningitis is usually caused by a viral or bacterial infection. Knowing whether meningitis is caused by a virus or bacterium is important because the severity of illness and the treatment differ. Viral meningitis is generally less severe and resolves without specific treatment, while bacterial meningitis can be quite severe and may result in brain damage, hearing loss or learning disability. For bacterial meningitis it is also important to know which type of bacteria is causing the meningitis because antibiotics can prevent some types from spreading and infecting other people. Before the 1990s, Haemophilus influenza type b (Hib) was the leading cause of bacterial meningitis, but new vaccines being given to all children as part of their routine immunizations have reduced the occurrence of invasive disease due to H. influenza. Today, Streptococcus pneumonia and Neisseria meningitides are the leading causes of bacterial meningitis.
What are the signs and symptoms of meningitis?
High fever, headache and stiff neck are common symptoms of meningitis in anyone over the age of 2 years. These symptoms can develop over several hours, or they may take 1 to 2 days. Other symptoms may include nausea, vomiting, discomfort looking into bright lights, confusion and sleepiness. In newborns and small infants, the classic symptoms of fever, headache and neck stiffness may be absent or difficult to detect and the infant may only appear slow or inactive or be irritable, have vomiting or be feeding poorly. As the disease progresses, patients of any age may have seizures.
How is meningitis diagnosed?
Early diagnosis and treatment are very important. If symptoms occur, the patient should see a doctor immediately. The diagnosis is usually made by growing bacteria from a sample of spinal fluid. The spinal fluid is obtained by performing a spinal tap, in which a needle is inserted into an area in the lower back where fluid in the spinal canal is readily accessible. Identification of the type of bacteria responsible is important for selection of correct antibiotics.
Can meningitis be treated?
Bacterial meningitis can be treated with a number of effective antibiotics. It is important, however, that treatment be started early in the course of the disease. Appropriate antibiotic treatment of most common types of bacterial meningitis should reduce the risk of dying from meningitis to below 15%, although the risk is higher among the elderly.
Is meningitis contagious?
Yes, some forms of bacterial meningitis are contagious. The bacteria are spread through the exchange of respiratory and throat secretions (i.e., coughing, kissing). Fortunately, none of the bacteria that cause meningitis are as contagious as things like the common cold or the flu, and they are not spread by casual contact or by simply breathing the air where a person with meningitis has been.
However, sometimes the bacteria that cause meningitis have spread to other people who have had close or prolonged contact with a patient with meningitis caused by Neisseria meningitides (also called meningococcal meningitis) or Hib. People in the same household or daycare center or anyone with direct contact with a patient's oral secretions (such as a boyfriend or girlfriend) would be considered at increased risk of acquiring the infection. People who qualify as close contacts of a person with meningitis caused by N meningitides should receive antibiotics to prevent them from getting the disease. Antibiotics for contacts of a person with Hib meningitis disease are no longer recommended if all contacts 4 years of age or younger are fully vaccinated against Hib disease (see below).
Are there vaccines against meningitis?
Yes, there are vaccines against Hib and against some strains of N. Meningitidis and many types of Streptococcus pneumonia. The vaccines against Hib are very safe and highly effective. There is also a vaccine that protects against four strains of N meningitides, but it is not routinely used in the United States. The vaccine against N. Meningitidis is sometimes used to control outbreaks of some types of meningococcal meningitis in the United States. Meningitis cases should be reported to state or local health departments to assure follow-up of close contacts and recognize outbreaks.
College freshmen, especially those who live in dormitories, are at higher risk for meningococcal disease and should be educated about the availability of a safe and effective vaccine which can decrease their risk. Although large epidemics of meningococcal meningitis do not occur in the United States, some countries experience large, periodic epidemics. Overseas travelers should check to see if meningococcal vaccine is recommended for their destination. Travelers should receive the vaccine at least 1 week before departure, if possible. Information on areas for which meningococcal vaccine is recommended can be obtained by calling the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention at (404) 332-4565.
There are vaccines to prevent meningitis due to S. pneumonia (also called pneumococcal meningitis) which can also prevent other forms of infection due to S. pneumonia. The pneumococcal polysaccharide vaccine is recommended for all persons over 65 years of age and younger persons at least 2 years old with certain chronic medical problems. There is a newly licensed vaccine (pneumococcal conjugate vaccine) that appears to be effective in infants for the prevention of pneumococcal infections and is routinely recommended for all children greater than 2 years of age.
Resources for schools and families to obtain information about meningococcal disease in addition to their local physician/health care provider and local health department include the following websites: