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What is it and how is it spread?

Meningococcal disease is a rare infection caused by several different types of a bacterium called the meningococcus.1 The disease can present in several ways, but most commonly as meningitis or septicaemia (also known as blood poisoning). The disease can be found across the world, although the highest numbers of infections are seen in sub-Saharan Africa in the area known as the 'meningitis belt', which stretches from Senegal to Ethiopia.2

Meningococcal disease is spread from person to person through coughing, sneezing, kissing or during close contact with someone who has the infection.1

People can carry the bacteria that causes the infection but not be affected by the disease. These people are known as 'carriers', and in the UK, about 10% of the population are thought to be carriers. These people do not show any symptoms, but can occasionally get the disease (either meningitis or blood poisoning). This happens if the bacteria moves from the back of the nose and throat into the bloodstream.2

Who is at risk?

You are at higher risk of meningococcal disease if you are visiting areas that are likely to experience outbreaks, or where there are known cases of the infection. Travellers at particular risk include:2

  • People staying in an at-risk area for a long time, who will be in close contact with local people
  • Healthcare workers
  • Backpackers and other travellers who may be travelling in 'rough' conditions
  • Individuals with no spleen or a poorly functioning spleen
  • Travellers who have problems with their immune system

What are the symptoms?

Symptoms of meningitis can include fever, bad headaches, a stiff neck, nausea (feeling sick) and vomiting. People with meningitis can also sometimes feel uncomfortable when in light, or can get spots of blood that are trapped under the skin. Symptoms of septicaemia can include fever, chills, rash and confusion.1,2

Symptoms of serious meningococcal disease can progress quickly. If you think you, or your child, are experiencing symptoms, you should seek medical help straight away.2

How can it be prevented?

In the UK, meningococcal vaccines are given as part of the routine childhood immunisation schedule. Vaccination may be recommended for travellers depending on their individual risk.1

Infections that are spread through coughing and sneezing can be hard to prevent, but taking measures like using tissues and washing your hands frequently when coughing and sneezing can help. Wherever possible, you should avoid overcrowded places where the risk of infection may be high, such as local transport and busy markets.1

How can it be treated?

If you, or your child, become infected, you will normally be given antibiotics as soon as the disease is suspected. If it is known that you have been in close contact with someone with meningococcal disease, you may be given antibiotics whether or not you show symptoms.1

Where can I get further information?

Make sure you contact your GP or travel health practitioner in plenty of time before you travel to discuss the ways you can help to keep yourself healthy whilst away. You should try and contact them at least 4–6 weeks before your trip.

After your trip, you should contact your GP if you develop a fever or notice any other unusual symptoms.

  1. Fit For Travel. Meningococcal disease. Available at: Accessed August 2017.
  2. Travel Health Pro. Meningococcal meningitis. Available at: Accessed August 2017.

Date of preparation: November 2017