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What you Need to Know about Meningococcal Disease as a Traveler


While you’re unlikely to come across it, meningococcal disease should be on your radar for the simple fact that it is potentially fatal. The good news is that the disease is rare and it is vaccine-preventable.

In this post, we will describe symptoms and tell you where the disease can be found and how it can be avoided.

What is meningococcal disease?

Meningococcal disease is an illness caused by bacteria and transmitted through saliva and prolonged close contact with an infected person. It is most well known for being a cause of meningitis, a potentially fatal condition wherein the membranes covering the brain and spinal cord become inflamed, but it can also cause sepsis, which is essentially a poisoning of the blood.

Symptoms often include fever, headache, joint and muscle aches, fatigue, stiff neck, a rash (this occurs in roughly 2/3 of cases), and vomiting. Quick treatment (we will discuss treatment later in the article) is critical as the disease can become fatal in a short period of time.

Where can meningococcal disease be found?

While the disease is somewhat rare, you can technically get it anywhere in the world. Transmission occurs from close contact with or via the saliva of an infected person. That said, there are certain areas of the world where the number of cases is much higher, namely crowded and densely populated areas of developing world countries.

The number of cases is highest in the African Meningitis Belt, which you can see in the photo below:

While the disease is most prevalent in this belt, it’s important to note that it is not restricted to Africa. Epidemics have previously occurred in northern India, Nepal, and Brazil among other places.

Is there a vaccine?

The good news is that, yes, there is indeed a vaccine for meningococcal disease. While this vaccine is not required to enter any countries (except for Saudia Arabia during the Muslim Hajj pilgrimage), it is advisable if you are traveling anywhere in the African Meningitis Belt, especially between the months of December to June, when cases are most likely to occur, as well as anywhere there is an outbreak occurring.

There are actually 3 vaccines available for meningococcal disease, all of which are safe and effective. You should consult a doctor at a travel health clinic before getting one. This consultation will allow you to review up to date information on your destination and whether or not there is an outbreak.

It’s also worth noting, that many institutions, such as schools and universities, require the meningococcal vaccine before admission is granted. Once again, this stems from the fact that the disease thrives in close living quarters.

Can you treat meningococcal disease?

Treatment is possible with a variety of antibiotics, but early diagnosis is critical. Diagnosis is performed by analyzing a sample of spinal fluid. Yes, this means that a spinal tap is required. A positive diagnosis requires immediate treatment. According to the CDC, timely treatment with appropriate antibiotics can reduce the mortality rate to below 15%. Keep in mind, this is still a high number!! Hence the reason this is not a disease to be taken lightly.

You should always consult a doctor at a travel health clinic before making a decision, but if you want our advice, get the vaccine. In fact, you might already have it from an earlier requirement (university, for example). This is a disease you definitely want to avoid, and fortunately, there is a very straightforward way to do so.

{ 1 comment… add one }

  • Shane December 8, 2012, 8:57 am

    Been there, caught that, got the loss of hearing in one ear 🙂

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