Meningococcal disease

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What is meningococcal disease?

Meningococcal disease is an infection caused by the bacterium Neisseria meningitidis. This bacterium can cause serious and sometimes fatal diseases including meningitis (infection of the brain lining) and meningococcal septicemia (infection of the blood). 

There are many different subtypes of the bacteria, but five of the subtypes (A, B, C, Y and W135) are responsible for the majority of meningococcal cases.

What is my risk? 

The risk is low for most travellers. Travellers at higher risk include:

  • Anyone living or working with the local population (e.g. health care workers) in areas where meningitis is present or outbreaks are occurring (such as the sub-Saharan African meningitis belt).
  • Anyone travelling to crowded areas or taking part in large gatherings, such as the Hajj.

How is it transmitted?     

  • Meningococcal disease is spread from close and prolonged contact with an infected person through saliva or secretions (fluids) from the nose and throat. Examples include kissing, sneezing or coughing, living in close quarters with an infected person, sharing eating or drinking utensils.
  • Most people exposed to the bacteria do not become infected but may become carriers and spread the bacteria to others.

What are the symptoms?

  • Symptoms take an average of four days to appear. In some cases symptoms may appear between two and ten days after infection.
  • They usually include high fever, headache, stiff neck, nausea, vomiting and drowsiness. Other symptoms may include sensitivity to light (photophobia), confusion and a purplish skin rash.
  • Complications can include deafness, brain damage, seizures and may lead to death.

Can meningococcal disease be treated?

The infection can be treated with antibiotics.

The disease is fatal in 5-10% of cases even when diagnosed and treated early.

Where is meningococcal disease a concern?

Meningococcal disease occurs worldwide with seasonal variations.

  • In temperate zones (regions that have four seasons), most epidemics occur during the winter months.
  • In tropical areas, most epidemics occur during the dry season. In sub-Saharan Africa, where the meningitis belt extends from Senegal to Ethiopia, most outbreaks occur from December to June.


Consult a health care provider or visit a travel health clinic preferably six weeks before you travel.

1) Get vaccinated

  • Travellers visiting countries experiencing outbreaks and travellers at higher risk should consult with a health care provider to discuss the benefits of being vaccinated.
  • Routine meningococcal vaccine programs in Canada differ by province and territory. Talk to your health care provider to review your immunization history, and make sure you and/or your child receive the recommended vaccinations before leaving.

2) Protect yourself and others from the spread of germs

a) Wash your hands frequently:

  • Avoid touching your eyes, nose and mouth with your hands as germs can be spread this way. For example, if you touch a doorknob that has germs on it then touch your mouth, you can get sick.
  • Wash your hands with soap under warm running water for at least 20 seconds, as often as possible.
  • Use alcohol-based hand sanitizer if soap and water are not available. It’s a good idea to always keep some with you when you travel.

b) Practise proper cough and sneeze etiquette:

  • Cover your mouth and nose with your arm to reduce the spread of germs. If you use a tissue, dispose of it as soon as possible and wash your hands afterwards.

c) Try to avoid close contact with people who are sick.

3) Monitor your health

  • If you develop symptoms of meningococcal disease, as described above, see a health care provider immediately:
    • Describe your symptoms to your health care provider before your appointment, so that he/she can arrange to see you without exposing others.
    • Tell your health care provider where you have travelled.
  • If you feel ill upon arrival into Canada, please tell the flight attendant before you land or the border services officer as you exit the flight.
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